November 10, 2003
PERSPECTIVES ON SAUSSURE
Paul Bouissac (University of Toronto)
1. An epistemological vision.
It is important to underline at the outset that the status of Saussure as a major fountainhead of semiotics is based on a short paragraph in the Course in General Linguistics and on a few remarks scattered throughout the book. This text has been quoted, paraphrased or alluded to countless times. It reads: “It is therefore possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek sêmeîon, ‘sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge” (1983:15-16).
Saussure’s efforts, however, were focused on the theoretical status of linguistic signs and did not deal at any significant length with any other semiological systems. While numerous and detailed linguistic examples were provided in his teaching, there is very little both in the Course and in the manuscripts concerning this new science beyond some mentions of possible domains of inquiry: “A language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and hence comparable to writing, the deaf-and-dumb alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, and so on. It is simply the most important of such systems” (1983:15).
The epistemological status of this virtual science of signs remains equally vague as Saussure, restricting his own competence to linguistics, leaves it to general psychology to determine the place of semiology in the mapping of future human knowledge: “It is for the psychologist to determine the exact place of semiology. The linguist’s task is to define what makes language a special type of system within the totality of semiological facts” (1983:16).
With respect to the method, Saussure does not attempt to provide any explicit guidelines concerning the analysis of any of the other sign systems listed as potential objects of study for semiology. However, given the fact that he aimed at reaching semiological definitions of “linguistic facts”, his elaborations of the theoretical notion of linguistic signs appeared general enough to provide a basis for extrapolations and generalisations beyond the realm of language. The semiotic legacy of Saussure is thus a series of attempts at meeting his epistemological challenge through applying his linguistic approach to other cultural institutions and productions. The abstractness of the principles proved to be both fertile and perilous. They are still the object of debates and controversies (e.g., Thibault 1996, Harris 2000).
Saussure did not have direct disciples who would have undertaken to implement their master’s semiological vision. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, the editors of the Course, had their own linguistic and semantic agenda. However, special mention should be made of Russian linguist Serjei Karcevski who, in 1907, had emigrated to Switzerland where he attended some of Saussure’s courses, and later lectured on Saussurean linguistics, albeit not uncritically, at the Russian Academy of Sciences after his return to Moscow in 1917-1919. He is considered to be the main link which conveyed Saussure’s oral tradition to Slavic linguists, such as Roman Jakobson, who were to become some of the most active proponents of semiotic research. But those who sought inspiration in Saussure’s insights had to figure them out first from students’ notes and recollections as well as from their interpretation and reconstruction by the editors of the Course in General Linguistics (1983 ). To make things even worse, most of those who have repeatedly quoted Saussure in the form of aphorisms and diagrams purporting to capture the nature of the (linguistic) sign, principally since the 1960s, have consistently ignored the intellectual and historical context in which Saussure’s views took shape, notably during the decade he spent in Paris before he was appointed in 1891 to the University of Geneva, first to teach Comparative Philology, then to take over the chair of General Linguistics only a few years before his death in 1913. Saussure’s problematic theoretical positions, which he rather provocatively expressed in three courses between 1907 and 1911 ( Saussure 1993, 1996, 1997) were conceived in the wake of intense philosophical debates focused on the nature of signs, language and meaning (e.g., Schleicher 1863, Whitney 1875, Bréal 1897) toward which Saussure occasionally expressed more or less critical judgements. In spite of serious attempts at elucidating this intellectual tangle through scholarly historiography (e.g., Aarsleff 1982, Koerner 1972, 1973, 1988, Normand 1978), the epistemological context in which Saussure elaborated his semiological vision is far from being fully documented and understood, notably with respect to the influence on his thought of late XVIIIth century French philosophy, Husserl’s phenomenology, Durkeim’s and Tarde’s sociology, and Darwinism.
Later, compared to the published works of his immediate contemporaries, Saussure’s aphorisms appeared radically different. The relative novelty of his more abstract and more comprehensive approach was foregrounded by the epigones of the 1960s who construed his pronouncements into the absolute beginning of a new era, a “rupture épistémologique” that marked the birth of “sémiologie”. This making of a semiotic hero tended to take Saussure’s insights out of their historical context and to frame them in the wider perspective of an eclectic discourse in which several epistemological streams had merged, mainly during the second half of the xxth century, as we will see below.
Genealogical reconstructions are a common feature of new disciplines which tend to locate their source in some fountainheads in order to establish their historical legitimacy. Semiotics is no exception. But we must not forget that Saussure himself did not consider that his semiological speculations were yet worthy of being published. His high epistemological standards prevented him from considering that, at the time when he was giving his last lectures, his tentative efforts amounted to a foundational treatise on general linguistics, still less on semiology. When perusing the sources of the Course in General Linguistics (Godel 1957; Saussure 1967, 1968, 1974), one may acquire an understanding of the reasons for which Saussure was not willing to publish a book on this topic, as the editors apologetically emphasized. This would have required that the author, in his own view, had indeed reached some definite conclusions. Instead, the impression that these sources convey is that Saussure was still struggling with the complexity and implications of the linguistic and semantic controversies of the late XIXth century.
On the one hand, his position appears to be clearly set with respect to these issues. On the other hand, the criticisms he voiced towards the positions of his contemporaries did not yet amount to coherent refutations. It also seems that he was at times hesitant toward his own ideas on general linguistics and semiology, as if he were either concerned by their counterintuitive quality or confronted with some inner contradictions that he could not overcome. In theoretical matters, there are some speculative propositions that can be acceptably uttered within specific contexts, such as seminars, conversations or correspondence, with all kinds of rhetorical precautions indicating their tentativeness, but which cannot be written in earnest as long as they cannot be articulated yet in the form of compelling arguments. As Albert Sechehaye noted some thirty years later in an article published in Vox Romanica: “Having been asked to teach courses in general linguistics, which, incidentally, had been allotted a very short time, the master, whose thought on this topic was still in progress, hardly could do more than convey to his students the problems with which he was struggling and the few certainties he had reached so far concerning some essential points. Three times, each time from a different angle, he expounded his views, thus making his listeners reflect upon these issues anew. He was thinking aloud to stimulate their own thinking” (Godel 1969: 139) (translation mine).
It must also be kept in mind that Saussure’s courses on general linguistics involved a very small number of students, a factor that certainly accounts for the relative informality, almost confidentiality, of the delivery. In these circumstances, it is somewhat unfortunate that Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye rushed the editing of the courses and published a largely fabricated text that became an authoritative reference for several generations of researchers, and froze Saussure’s image in the posture of a prophetic founding hero. The paucity of biographical information on the man himself and his aristocratic silence added a dimension of intellectual solitude that played well on the myth of the enlightened mind whose thoughts were ahead of his time and could only be heard by future generations. At times in a cult-like manner, some would champion his epistemological heritage with filial devotion (e.g., Greimas 1956), while others would stake their own claim to fame by symbolically murdering the father figure he had become willy-nilly (e.g., Derrida 1968). Whatever problems may be raised by such ambiguous genealogies, the historiography of semiotics as a movement which contributed to shape the intellectual landscape of the xxth century must take “Saussurism” into consideration.
2. Saussurism at work.
The presence of Saussure in the semiotic discourse of the xxth century oscillates between, on the one hand, uncritical elevation of his aphorisms to axiomatic status and, on the other hand, theoretical or ideological criticism of what was perceived as the ontological and metaphysical implications of his positions. But his programmatic ideas on what linguistic and semiology should be were consistently considered seminal, albeit usually with qualifications, by those who later contributed to the emergence of the systematic study of signs. The main idea with which Saussurism became identified was that linguistics, and a fortiori semiology, had to be a science in the full sense of the term, that is, it had to lead to the discovery of regularities following necessary laws which could be formally expressed through mathematical equations like the laws of physics. This scientific rationalism was in marked opposition to the then prevailing belief that linguistics and semantics could only be historical sciences that would document and record the successive changes of language forms and their ability to express ideas. The first step toward Saussure’s ambitious agenda was the assertion that language is essentially a system of differences without positive terms, every element deriving its value from its formal oppositions with the other elements in the system. Since there is no other rationale for the value of each element, it ensues that conventional signs such as those whose mutual relations constitute a language are arbitrary. All accidental changes in these formal relations will necessarily trigger a reordering of the whole system. Consequently, it is not possible to construe language (or any other system of signs obeying the same general laws) as a means to express a preexisting thought or meaning: the “signifying” forms and the “signified” concepts are inseparable like, according to Saussure, the recto and the verso of a sheet of paper. Thus stands the radical thesis which emerges from the Course in General Linguistics and which the progressive disclosure of notes and unpublished manuscripts reaffirmed with clarity while showing that Saussure was at the same time struggling with its paradoxical implications.
This novel approach captured the attention first of a few linguists, then progressively spread to other disciplines and interacted with other intellectual movements, but not without some ambiguities and misunderstandings due to the tentativeness of its formulation and the adulterated form in which it was conveyed at first.
Saussure’s most definite impact on the development of semiotics is usually traced along three paths: (i) the Slavic stream which first lead, in the 1920s and 1930s, to the Prague school of linguistic functionalism and its extra-linguistic applications (e.g., Roman Jakobson), then, in the 1950s, to the Moscow-Tartu school, mostly devoted to the semiotic study of cultures (e.g., Juri Lotman); (ii) the Danish school of theoretical linguistics which, in the 1940s, became known as glossematics (coined on the model of mathematics with the Greek work glotta or glossa meaning “tongue”) and whose theses were sufficiently abstract for being applicable beyond the realm of language proper (e.g. Louis Hjelmslev); (iii) French structuralism, which rediscovered Saussure in the 1950s through the mediation of the first two streams and reconstituted an intellectual genealogy for the semiotic movement of the 1960s and beyond (e.g. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Algirdas Julien Greimas).
Naturally, this is a somewhat simplified vision of the way in which Saussure’s semiotic legacy can be mapped, because other, more discreet, often critical streams could be identified (e.g., Eric Buyssens 1943, Luis Prieto 1966, Bertil Malmberg 1977, Georges Mounin 1970), and because these various paths diverged, intersected and formed loops in the constraining geopolitical context of the Soviet revolution, World War II and the ensuing Cold War. It must be pointed out, however, that explicit references to Saussure as the prime mover are found in the writings of all the main exponents of the schools listed above, although they often endeavored at the same time to establish the originality of their own approaches with respect to Saussure’s assumed lack of theoretical consideration for the social and temporal dimensions of signs, the limits of his seemingly excessive notion of the arbitrariness of the relation between “signifiant” and “signifié”, or his neglect of the speaking subject. These various streams of Saussurean influence have been well documented, although perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the way in which they were selectively transformed through their interaction with other emerging epistemological movements such as Russian Formalism, Functional Structuralism, Cybernetics, Chomskyan linguistics, and Lacanian Freudism.
Russian Formalism is the name given to a group of literary scholars who, at the beginning of the xxth century, in collaboration with linguists, started to question the historical approach to literature and art, and to focus their attention upon the formal and structural characteristics of artistic works, more particularly poetry. Through the 1920s and 1930s, they produced general theories aimed at accounting for the characteristics of the poetic function of language and for the formal devices through which poems, narratives such as epics and folk tales, and by extension all aesthetic objects were generated. Their foregrounding of formal differences and systemic features was very compatible indeed with Saussurism which thus became associated with research on artistic productions, a domain which Saussure himself apparently did not include in his tentative lists of the systems which should come under the purview of semiology, although his manuscripts on Latin poetics (Starobinski 1964, 1979  ) and on ancient myths (Avalle 1973) betray a deep, almost obsessive interest in the formal properties of literary texts.
Functional Structuralism, also known as the Prague School, which is one of the main sources of XXth century semiotics, originated in the late 1920s in Prague where some of the early Russian “formalists” had emigrated. The influential linguistic theory they formulated was in part inspired by Saussure’s ideas, but not uncritically. In particular, they conceptualized phonological systems as being ruled not only by intrinsic laws, but also by the constraints of social communication as well as by psychological considerations under the notable influence of German psychologist Karl Bühler (1879-1963). Formal differences were viewed as functionally motivated by communicative conditions. They also pursued the Russian Formalists’ agenda by bringing into focus semiotic analyses of literature, the arts and other symbolic artifacts. Their detailed expositions of phonological systems and their systematic use of Saussure’s complementary notions such as paradigm / syntagm, “langue”/ “parole”, and diachrony / synchrony, served to build a commonsensical approach for their more comprehensive semiotic method, thus somewhat trivializing the counterintuitive character of Saussure’s insights. This is patent in the model constructed by Jakobson (1960) after an earlier schema of Bühler and with some notions borrowed from information theory, which purports to represent in a diagram the six functions that are necessary for completing all successful acts of linguistic communication. Each function corresponds to a distinct pole or factor of the process through which information is conveyed from an addresser (emotive function) to an addressee (conative function) by means of a message (poetic function) providing that the sender and receiver are in contact through a particular channel (phatic function), that they share the same code (metalinguistic function) and that they have access to the same context, at least in part (referential function).
This pragmatic model obviously concerns acts of speech (parole) rather than the linguistic system itself (langue). According to it, the relative weight of each function determines the dominant features of particular messages. This model has been widely applied to semiotic descriptions of non-linguistic cultural domains with appropriate adjustments, but can hardly qualify as a Saussurean model in spite of the fact that its promoters implied that “langue” and “code” were equivalent notions as “message” corresponded to “parole”. Such semiotic generalisations, or transmogrifications, of Saussure’s linguistic concepts were achieved not only under the influence of functionalism but also by loosely borrowing terms from the vocabulary of cybernetics and the theory of information.
Cybernetics was indeed another epistemological movement which had emerged during the XXth century in parallel with the developments of formalism and functionalism, and had created a set of conceptual tools which seemed appropriate to refer to both linguistic and non linguistic semiotic systems. For those who were familiar with Saussure’s ideas, the cybernetic notions of system states and system dynamics, state transitions and control, modeling of interacting components and interacting systems, provided an attractive metalanguage. Difference and information could be easily construed as kin concepts, as well as the notions of “langue”, “system” and “code”. The works of Norbert Wiener (e.g., 1961  ), Gregory Bateson (e.g., 1967), Ross Ashby (e.g. 1956) and Abraham Moles (e.g., 1958) contributed to the diffusion of cybernetic models among the various schools which then mapped the incipient semiotic movements in Europe and North America while a parallel development was taking place in the Soviet Union. There, Saussure, structuralism and semiotics had indeed become unpalatable for the reigning ideology but the sort of research they inspired were tolerated under the name of cybernetics. These are the roots of the Moscow-Tartu school of semiotics which came to prominence under the leadership of Vjaceslav Ivanov and Jurij Lotman who established the concept of cultural “text” on formal grounds and developed the notions of primary and secondary modeling systems, blending Saussurism and cybernetics in their analysis of various cultural productions (e.g., Lotman 1990).
Chomskyan linguistics captured the epistemological imagination of some semioticians as soon as Syntactic Structures (Chomsky 1957) appeared. Chomsky was adamant that language, more exactly grammatical knowledge, was a universal specific competence defined by an abstract representation of the sentence, that was totally independent from the whole range of communicative behaviour in which semioticians were showing interest. Nevertheless, the metaphor of normative “deep structures” generating “surface” phenomena and accounting for their regulated transformations was appealing for a generation which was struggling with Saussure’s unfinished agenda. Chomsky’s tree diagrams were adapted to whatever domains could be accounted for in terms of assumed rules, such as music and poetry (e.g., Ruwet 1972), architecture (e.g., Boudon 1973) or gestures (e.g., Bouissac 1973). In spite of the misgivings of the promoter of linguistic generativism towards semiotics, some semioticians considered Chomsky – who himself endorsed the idea for a while -- as a follower of Saussure in as much as he had provided formal analytical tools to operationally relate abstract structures to concrete manifestations of semiotic phenomena. Their assumption, which was not shared by Chomsky, was the Saussurean idea that linguistics should be considered a part of semiology.
Lacanian Freudism, which impressed a host of minds at about the same time, explicitly endeavoured to reformulate Freud’s theory of the unconscious in terms of Saussurean concepts. Claiming that the unconscious was structured as a language, French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), under the influence of Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss, undertook an unwieldy synthesis of Saussure and Freud (Lacan 1957). Since the necessary system Saussure called “langue” was indeed unconscious while governing the conscious production of speech, a loose analogy could be perceived between dreams or other symptoms and “parole”. Boldly equating the two models allowed Lacan to put to use all the Saussurean notions such as “signifiant”and “signifié”or “paradigm” and “syntagm”, and to undertake a creative translation of Freud’s theory into Saussure’s conceptual idiom as it was perceived through the lenses of the Prague school and French structuralism. In the process, Lacan redefined the notions he was borrowing, coined new terms and developed a theory aimed at transcending Saussurean semiology through his conceptually retooled psychoanalysis.
This cursory review shows that Saussure’s insights were put to work in a great variety of intellectual contexts. At the same time, Saussurism underwent some kind of hybridizing and creolisation. This is most apparent in works that have been dubiously considered to be examples of semiological “applications” of Saussure’s programmatic ideas, and which contributed to launch French structuralism as an intellectual fashion through anthropology and psychoanalysis rather than linguistics. It is important to keep in mind that the perception of the development of Saussurism remains filtered by the particular schools which have provided sketchy genealogical narratives. A serious intellectual biography of Saussure himself is still to be written and the history of the many entangled threads of influence, including Saussure’s legacy, which shaped modern semiotics remains to be done.
3. The semiotic generation of the 1960s
For the semiotic generation of the 1960s, the interface with Saussure’s ideas was not in the form of textual erudition and exegesis. It was rather in the context of an overarching epistemological framework in which Saussure occupied the unquestioned position of the founding father to whom regular homage was rendered (Mounin 1968). The Saussurean doxa, derived from the Course in General Linguistics, provided a stock of notions which were taken for granted, with the qualifications introduced by otherwise sympathetic linguists such as Emile Benveniste (1939, 1969) and Roman Jakobson (1966, 1980 ) concerning respectively the role of the subject and the limits of the principle of arbitrariness. While philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945) had focused attention on Saussure’s views of language, albeit within the horizon of his own phenomenological perspective, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1945, 1963  ) was relying more precisely on the structural phonology of Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1939), to which he had been introduced by Jakobson in the 1940s. Later, the folk tale narratology of Vladimir Propp, first published in Russian in 1928, which had been translated into English (1958), was to be influential for the constructing of structuralist models of myth interpretation (Lévi-Strauss 1960). Toward the same time, psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (1957) was attempting to articulate his epochal understanding of Freudism through a few concepts gathered rather uncritically from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics and Jakobson’s idiosyncratic version of Saussurism. As to literary scholar Roland Barthes and lexicologist A.J. Greimas, their direct inspiration was admittedly coming from the writings of the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1965) whose complex theory had developed during the 1930s in the wake of Saussure’s ideas and was offering a more formal and better articulated system than whatever could be surmised from the Course in General Linguistics.
In the first chapter of his Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (1961  ), Hjelmslev had acknowledged Saussure as the only linguistic theoretician deserving to be considered as a precursor of his own approach. The Prolegomena, published in Denmark in 1943, were translated into English a decade later (Hjelmslev 1953). This is when Greimas and Barthes, then in Alexandria, became acquainted with the text (Greimas 1986:42). In his introductory essay to the French translation of Hjelmslev’s Sproget (1963) [Le Langage (1966)], Greimas introduces the author as “the true, perhaps even the sole continuator of Saussure who succeeded in making explicit his insights and giving them a definitive form”(1966:12). Hjelmslev’s concepts and methods, which he had shown to be applicable beyond the linguistic domain to cultural artifacts such as traffic lights or telephone dials (1968 [1943, 1947] ), became the focus of attention of this new wave of semioticians. By comparison, Saussure’s notional dichotomies such as langue / parole or diachronie / synchronie were then considered to be mere “heuristic concepts”, as Greimas stated a few years later in an interview with Herman Parret (1974: 57).
Barthes’s earlier attempt to present a comprehensive view of Saussurism and its Hjelmslevian developments in Eléments de sémiologie (1964) had initiated a critical debate by questioning one of the basic tenets of the Course in General Linguistics which contended that linguistics should be a part of semiology. By inverting the relation Barthes started a process which not only paradoxically pulled Saussure in the “glottocentric” camp, but also eventually was to lead to the undermining of the scientific ambitions of structuralist semiology itself.
However, a somewhat cruder view prevailed in a larger population of students and researchers who were prone to assume that semiotics consisted of finding in a vast array of cultural productions the equivalent of linguistic models since linguistics, in the guise of functional structuralism, was assumed to be the “pilot science” that could guide the construction of the more ambitious science of signs that had been prophetized by Saussure. In fact, as we have noted above, the model was strongly biased not only by the functional structuralism of the Prague School and its diaspora, but also by communication theory models (Wiener 1948) and by the cybernetic algorithms which were then popularized by writers such as Ross Ashby (1956) and Abraham Moles (1958) in the west, and by the Russian and Estonian scholars which were to form the Moscow-Tartu School in the Soviet Union (Grzybek 1998:422-425).
The semiotic praxis of the 1960s generation consisted therefore of projecting onto any cultural institution and its productions a conceptual grid whose basic categories were derived from the principles of Saussurean linguistics but which also relied on a number of other sources. It was indeed considered that semiotic analysis required supplementary methodological tools, given the paucity of practical instructions found in the Course in General Linguistics as far as the construction of a general “sémiologie” was concerned. Cultural productions were construed as “texts” and institutions as “langues”. In so doing, these notions were given more formal definitions than they had in poetics and linguistics proper. For instance, “text” was heuristically construed as a finite set of mutually definable elements organized by a structure which was endowed with relative stability. These elements could be anything from words or objects to architectural or gestural components. The researchers first set for themselves the task of identifying the basic relevant units which corresponded to the “phonemes” in the sense in which this term was understood in Trubetzkoy’s theory of phonology (1936, 1939, 1964).
The researchers typically would endeavour to identify the minimal meaningless units whose absence or presence made a meaningful difference in “textual” strings or sets of such units. Then, the next task was to take stock of the meaningful units themselves, the “morphemes” which syntactically combined in larger sets corresponding to the sentences and discourses of language. The transformations taking place within the text itself were accounted for through the descriptive categories of narratology represented by a set of abstract functions. These analytical efforts generated a series of neologisms coined on the model of “phonemes” and “morphemes”, the ending “eme” indicating the functionality of the units or their relevance to the system, such as “mythemes” (units of myths such as semantic relations and narrative or transformative functions arranged in paradigmatic tables), “gustemes” (units of taste whose combinations actualised particular culinary systems), “choremes” (units of space, such as centre and periphery, verticality and horizontality, conjunction and disjunction), “kinemes” (units of movements, which served as a kernel for a host of neologisms which consisted often of simply rewriting all the analytical concepts of linguistics around the radical “kine”, meaning “movement”in ancient Greek), “graphemes”(units of writing whose variety was designated by terms borrowed from geometry and topology), “vestemes” (units of clothing such as those which were used in the descriptive language of fashion and could be semiotically redefined), and the like. These were assumed to be the pertinent units whose various rule-governed combinations (or syntagms) produced respectively the particular meanings of myths, gastronomy, architecture, gesture, writing, fashion and so on.
This analytical process created a number of theoretical and methodological problems. For instance, it was not always clear whether the units which could be abstractly isolated were the equivalent of linguistic phonemes (meaningless units such as /a/, /b/, /l/, /s/) or morphemes (meaningful units such as /blue/, /go/, /-es/, /’s/). A typical debate of the time was bearing upon this issue of duality of patterning or double articulation, a notion expounded with great clarity by André Martinet in articles and books (e.g., 1949, 1967  ). This latter work, Elements of Linguistics, was then considered by many to be the bible of Saussurean linguistics in its updated functionalist version. Extrapolating analytical methods from natural languages to other semiotic systems was however rife with difficulties. How to functionally segment cultural productions is indeed rarely obvious. A historical building, a display window, a musical or acrobatic performance, a sport event, and an advertising are all meaningful cultural instances which involve multiple sensorial modalities and include already constituted signifying subsystems. If architecture, ballet, cinema, fashion, etc., are construed as languages, and monuments, performances, films, clothing, etc., as texts, it is necessary to create translinguistic concepts of paradigms, commutation, signification, code, grammar, and rhetoric at the very least. The search for the building blocks and the rules of construction of these complex cultural productions was driven by the epistemological goal of reaching, beyond their spatial and temporal diversity, a vision of their structure, that is, a system of relations among abstract categories which could be expressed in the form of a table or an algorithm resembling those which were found in the metadiscourse of structural phonology. Naturally, the epistemological quest was conceived as leading from a methodic description of the “signifiant” to a discovery of the structure of the well-ordered “signifié”, going from the “sensible” to the “intelligible”, in other words, from “parole” to “langue”.
The methodology consisted first of reducing the redundancies of the “text” (that is, identifying and lumping together all the words or visual images referring to the same conceptual object or class of objects) in order to reach more general binary oppositions or systems of values: “First, categorize!”, as Greimas used to instruct his students. Then, the basic categories could be visually displayed and ordered through various schemata or algebraic representations. The particular tables thus elaborated purported to “explain” cultural productions by providing conceptual access to their deep or true sense in the form of sets of relations (their langue) and to “demonstrate” how they were generated, through successive stages of concretization, as particular phenomenological experiences in time like the determinate and contextualized instances of language (their parole). These structures were given as the necessary general conditions for the very possibility of meaning production. This rewriting process was achieved with a mixture of self-assurance based on the principles spelled out by the linguistics masters, and great theoretical anxiety created by the skepticism with which these results were usually received beyond the small circles of semioticians who had started organizing themselves in intellectual groups and scholarly associations such as the International Association for Semiotic Studies which was incorporated in Paris in 1969.
4.Saussurism and its discontents
By the time of the association’s first congress in 1974 in Milan, the other fountainhead of semiotics, C.S. Peirce, was already occupying a notable theoretical space which was promoted, by Roman Jakobson among others, as an American antidote to the perceived static quality and “glottocentrism” of European Saussurism. Peirce’s “semeiotic” had been popularized by Charles Morris in the 1930s in the context of behaviorism and logical positivism. Peirce, who had been a prolific writer in many scientific and philosophical fields, was known mainly in philosophy as the founder of Pragmatism, but his speculations on signs were progressively foregrounded on the international semiotic scene. Like Saussure’s, his thoughts on semiotics were accessible to the 1960s generation only in a fragmentary and indirect manner, through second hand introductions (e.g., Morris 1938, Ogden and Richards 1923, Burks 1949) or through extensively edited philosophical anthologies of his articles (e.g. Buchler 1940). Peirce’s contribution to semiotics was then mostly perceived, in a summary manner, first, as the classification of signs into three categories: index, icon and symbol, then, as the introduction of a dynamic dimension, semiosis (the action of signs) into the general conceptual framework of a science of signs. Although some philosophers such as Gilles-Gaston Granger (1960, 1968), Max Bense (1967) and Gérard Deledalle (1971, 1974) were showing a more sophisticated interest in Peirce’s system, Barthes’s Eléments de sémiologie made only a brief allusion to his categorization of signs which he compares to other classifications. However, Peirce and Saussure, whose approaches were critically compared as early as 1923 by Charles K. Ogden and Ivor A. Richards, would progressively become narrowly associated in the semiotic épistémé of the second half of the century. Some would construe them as theoretical antagonists, pitching the assumed static nature of binary structures against the dynamism of triadic relations; others would attempt to work out some comprehensive or synthetic views of these two most influential systems of thought which had been elaborated almost simultaneously but in vastly different conceptual contexts and with mostly incompatible epistemological agendas (Deledalle 1976, Broden 2000). Saussurism, as it was packaged in the Course in General Linguistics, thus became entangled in defensive dialogues not only with Peirce supporters but also with Marxists in fields which were well beyond the domain of relevance that Saussure had claimed for his theoretical views. Benveniste and Jakobson consistently invoked Peirce in their criticisms of Saussure’s theses. Jakobson (1980:31-38) went as far as construing Peirce as a “pathfinder in the science of language” in his efforts to bring the two in the same ring and act as the umpire. Saussure eventually was assigned the role of the straw man who embodied for many critics the linguistic and structuralist fallacies (e.g., Jameson 1972, Reiss 1988), thus ushering what, in their opinion, would be a Peircean or Marxist post-saussurean, post-structuralist era more concerned with the subjective and dialogical dimensions of speech, and the social and historical processes of meaning-making than with the description of a-temporal systems of logical differences. This was indeed the view which prevailed from the other side of the fence, a perception which perhaps owed more to Saussurism than to Saussure himself. Interestingly, the perceptive chapter which Timothy Reiss entitled “Semiology and its discontents: Saussure and Greimas” (1988: 56-97) and which the title of this section is meant to echo, is adorned with a quotation from Jakobson’s Essais de linguistique générale : “Those attempts made to construct a linguistic model without any connection to a speaker or a listener and which therefore hypostatize a code detached from actual communication, risk reducing language to a scholastic fiction”.
The purpose of this section in my chapter is not to engage in an explicit criticism of the Saussurean approach, but to document -- from the particular vantage point of an insider, who had undertaken in the 1960s to apply a structuralist methodology to an understanding of circus performances (Bouissac 1976) -- what this approach meant for the practitioners of semiotics who were then necessarily immersed in a conflict of models. While research was mostly conducted with epistemological optimism and some degree of combativeness, there were nevertheless some theoretical difficulties which derived from the ambiguities of Saussure’s approach itself as it was presented in the Course in General Linguistics, as well as from the blending of heterogeneous models. For instance, the related notions of code (a conventional system of equivalent values) and iconicity (the character of a sign which signifies through some similarity with its referent rather than through an arbitrary convention) fed a series of controversies which are still ongoing in some quarters. What is the extent of biological constraints on coding? What does happen to the principle of arbitrariness when one strays away from language proper ? Which properties can, and which ones cannot, be transferred from a linguistic model to a general semiological model? Are all semiological processes necessarily mediated by linguistic ones? Can any meaning be articulated outside language? Various solutions were proposed to these questions. Roland Barthes’s essay, “Myth today”, published as a postscript to his Mythologies (1957), is symptomatic of the strategic importance of Saussure’s semiological vision as it was then perceived on the basis of the Course in General Linguistics. At the same time, Barthes’s essay struggles rather inconclusively with the ambiguities of what was construed as the “problem of meaning” in a structuralist perspective and proposes eventually, after a perfunctory detour in the field of psychoanalysis, a Marxist interpretation of the few visual examples it discusses. Barthes’s interpretative tactics are presented as a scientific enterprise which bears upon written texts as well as images, will be replicated by many, using the same analytical notions ascribed to Saussure as a sort of conceptual machine geared to generate a discourse of "semiotic enlightenment ".
In the same vein, Christian Metz (1931-1994) undertook, in the wake of Barthes’s earlier discussions of film from a “semiological” point of view, to establish a semiotics of cinema based on Saussurean and Hjelmslevian notions (1968) before shifting in the 1970s to a purely psychoanalytical approach. During his semiological phase, Metz struggled with the difficulties involved in the direct application of the concepts and methods of Saussurean structural linguistics to a multimodal cultural object as complex and diverse as cinema. His own blend of semiotic optimism and epistemological anxiety is voiced in his landmark book Langage et cinéma (1971). In his Essais sur la signification au cinéma (1972), he credited Peirce for his leading role in the emergence of semiotics, thus signaling an epistemological shift among some prominent actors on the French scene.
The intense theoretical debates which ensued still maps the field of semiotic inquiry today. As we have seen above, Saussurism soon encountered the theoretical constructs coming from the Peircean and Marxist traditions, themselves combined with some of the same heterogeneous sources which impacted the Saussurean legacy. However, one may wonder to which extent this legacy actually represented the genuine continuation of Saussure’s own thought and project, or was a mere epistemological fantasy, mainly when Saussure came to be construed as an anti-Peirce in the sterile scholastic controversies of binarism versus triadism, or statism versus dynamism. Similarly, when Mikhail Bahktin (1895-1975) and his proxies, who had mounted in the 1920s an anti-formalist attack against Saussure, became known in the west through translations, they added a new dimension to the debate and contributed to further reinforce the stereotype of a Saussurean doctrine which they contended had overlooked the social, processual, transformational and fundamentally temporal nature of languages and cultures. While many researchers drifted away from Saussurism under the pressure of these movements, others held on their course along directions which were more consistent with particular aspects of Saussurism such as the foregrounding of formal relations and the exclusive attention paid to differential values in the representation of semiological systems, although this approach also implies some selective use of the sources.
5. Extreme formalism
Given the peculiar circumstances of Saussure’s scattered and fragmentary writings on the topic of a general science of signs, and their protracted and staggered appearance in print, it is impossible to relate the Saussurean legacy to a coherent textual body. As it was emphasized in the preceding sections, not only did Saussure not leave a systematic presentation of his main theses, but he seemingly never undertook to write up such a treatise. Trying to reconstruct Saussure’s assumed system from these bits and pieces has proved to be a frustrating entreprise, starting with the editors of the Course in General Linguistics. John Joseph’s chapter on the linguistic sign in this volume, and the entry on Saussure found in the monumental Handbook Sign-Theoretic Foundations of Nature and Culture (Posner et al.1997), again demonstrate the difficulty of the task even when it is limited to the linguistic domain. The most likely reason for this state of affairs is that such a system never existed in Saussure’s mind. But the absence of a logically compelling theory upon which a science of language and, by implication, a science of signs could be created, does not mean that Saussure’s approach was not insightful and valuable. His notes and fragments, which often point to problems rather than solutions, incited many minds, as we have seen above, to undertake the construction of a semiological system along the lines indicated by this approach. This chapter’s goal is not only to document this historical influence but also to suggest that its dynamic is not yet exhausted.
Saussure’s axiom stating that in language there is no positive terms but only differential values and their relations first led to the application of systems of logical oppositions to the phonological descriptions of the Prague School. But it was clear that given the absolute homology that Saussure seemed to have asserted between the “signifiant” and the “signifié”, the same was necessarily true of the latter. It was just a matter of time before someone would pursue the task undertaken by Nicolai Trubetzkoy (1936, 1939) and apply the method of his Principles of Phonology to the domain that had previously come to be called “semantic”. Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism generalized the analogy from structural phonology to a macro-analysis of myths in a way that was only tenuously related to Saussurean linguistic principles but embodied for the early structuralists the spirit of Saussure’s formal approach. This however left untouched the problem of a Saussurean semantics since anthropological structuralism was rather a metasemantic enterprise that took for granted the existence of the semantic systems which was a necessary part of the language spoken by the populations whose myths were scrutinized in the versions that had been recorded and translated by European explorers and colonists.
A.J. Greimas pushed further Lévy-Straussian formalism (Greimas 1966-b), as he had done a few years earlier with Georges Dumézil’s comparative mythology (Greimas 1963). Greimas was a lexicologist who had pursued an academic career at the University of Alexandria (Egypt) while obviously keeping abreast with the Paris intellectual scene. He had published ten years earlier an article entitled “L’actualité du Saussurisme”(1956) in which he lamented the lack of influence of Saussure’s ideas on French linguists, praised the recent development in France of structural anthropology in which he saw an application of the principles of the Course in General Linguistics, and outlined a program of research consisting of trying to achieve for the “signifié” what the Prague and Copenhagen schools had done for the “signifiant” in the period between the two world wars. The article celebrated the dawn of structuralism as the long overdue resumption of the Saussurean agenda, pointing out not only Lévi-Strauss’s, Barthes’s and a few early structuralists’ publications but also Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) which Greimas considered, perhaps opportunistically, to be a continuation of Saussure’s approach to language. This article, at the same time, staked out a territory within the contemporary research in semantics, a move which was to produce a decade later the book that launched Greimas on the modern semiotic stage: Sémantique structurale (1966). “Structural” and “structuralism” had then turned into buzz words, and Greimas later claimed that his publisher had insisted that “structurale” be included in his title for marketing purposes (personal communication), although the book’s title echoes Hjelmslev’s report to the VIIIth International Congress of Linguists: “Pour une sémantique structurale” (1959  ) . Greimas’s initial reluctance to sacrifice to what had become an intellectual fashion probably was caused by his conviction that the qualification would be redundant since Saussure’s axioms regarding general linguistics were indubitable and that, consequently, there were not to be several kinds of semantics but simply a “true” theory of the “signifié”, which was necessarily structural, as there already existed with Trubetzkoy’s Principes de Phonologie (1964) a “true” theory of the “signifiant”.
But for Greimas, as for Barthes in his semiological endeavours, implementing Saussure’s program required more than relying on Saussure’s “heuristic” notions. Greimas stood clear of Marxism and Freudism which were from his point of view discourses to be semiotically analyzed rather than sources of inspiration toward interpretive models of cultural productions. Instead, he undertook to derive his method from other sources, notably the formalisms he found in the Danish linguists Louis Hjelmslev (1953) and Viggo Brøndal (1943) as well as in logicians such as Hans Reichenbach (1947) and Robert Blanché (1966). The goal was to uncover the basic algorithms that account for the articulation of meaning at the most abstract level. In a manner that evokes Immanuel Kant’s a priori forms of perception, Greimas contends that the human mind does not have direct access to meaning in itself but only in as much as it is articulated through fundamental categories of oppositions, namely contradiction and contrariness, hence the notion of elementary structures of signification through which any meaningful instance is generated and can be described. This extreme formalism, whose origin is explicitly ascribed to Saussure’s thought, is expressed in the form of algebraic algorithms and geometric diagrams which purport to represent the necessary conditions for the very possibility of all discursive productions of meaning, thus giving some measure of operationality to the most radical Saussurean aphorisms. An early exposé of this systematic vision is found in an article published in the Yale French Review by Greimas in collaboration with François Rastier, “The Interaction of Semiotic Constraints” (1968).
Naturally, this approach encountered the opposition of those who considered it to be a mere avatar of philosophical idealism since all processes appeared to be ultimately referred to an abstract a-chronic basic structure, a sort of ontologism of Saussure’s synchrony. The standard “semiolinguistic” theory, as it came to be called by Greimas himself who at times echoed the rhetoric of Noam Chomsky through the use of expressions such as deep and surface structures, was said to be immune to empirically based criticism since its claim to scientific status was founded on its logical consistency with respect to its initial axioms. This, however, involved some degree of epistemological anxiety as well as in-group debates, typical of all attempts at establishing an ultimate theory. For instance, in the foreword to Du Sens [On Meaning], a book that collected some of his most significant articles (Greimas 1970), Greimas went as far as suggesting that since meaning can be apprehended only in as much as it is articulated through a priori semio-linguistic categories, the human mind has no direct access to meaning in itself. This prompted him to ironically undermine his own entreprise by paradoxically hinting that talking meaningfully about meaning would actually require a nonsensical discourse. Interestingly, this lucid remark, which confronted in jest the most haunting aporia of all extreme formalism, was truncated and downgraded to the status of a “cursory remark” by the translator of the book into English. The reason for this treatment is not clear: either Greimas recoiled or the translator, who was keen on launching in North America Greimas's semiolinguistics as a credible, teachable theory, decided that such intellectual candor was inappropriate and would puzzle or discourage naive readers.
Perhaps it is this very epistemological difficulty, inherent in the semiological enterprise, which prevented Saussure from confidently expounding in writing the complete principles of the systematic science of signs he adumbrated in his remarks and fragments. In 1926, Nikolai Trubetzkoy wondered why Saussure “did not dare draw a logical conclusion from his own thesis that ‘language is a system’” and he suggested that “the cause must be sought in the fact that such a conclusion would have been at cross-purposes with the universally recognized notion of language history and of history in general” (2001:183). The extreme formalists like Greimas who, in the second half of the century, would lay the most vocal claim to the Saussurean heritage had liberated themselves from such hesitations to the point of construing history itself as a meaning-producing discourse subject, as all discourses, to universal semiotic constraints. This bold move, however, carried the cost of infinite regress which not even a metaphysical loop (in the form of still another meaningful discourse) could stop.
But Saussure’s advocating of a radical formalism, an algebraic or mathematical approach to semiology, which prompted him to assert, for example, that “ for linguistic facts, element and character are eternally the same thing [and that] language [langue], like all other semiological systems, makes no difference between what distinguishes a sign and what constitutes it” (Saussure 1990:47), was rooted in a somewhat esoteric philosophical tradition going back at least to the characteristica universalis of Leibniz (1646-1716), whose fascination for combinatory systems had led him to study the hexagrams of the ancient Chinese Yi jing in which he saw as a harbinger of his own binary calculus (Leibniz 1987). This long-standing intellectual tendency to foreground and systematize formal differences for their own sake, which is usually credited for having ushered in contemporary information theory, has been pursued with renewed force beyond the immediate legacy of Saussure. George Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form (1969), for instance, bears witness to this dynamism in a way which is not alien to the Saussurean unfinished agenda. It is not infrequent to find explicit references to Saussure’s aphorisms in contemporary efforts to develop formal treatments of meaning in the framework of information technology (e.g. Beust 1998).
6. Does Saussure still matter to semiotics ?
Does Saussure still matter? Obviously, from a purely historical point of view, it would be difficult to fully understand the emergence of the semiotic movement in Europe and its promises and discontents without taking into consideration the impact of Saussure’s ideas, however tentative they may have been. But beyond the anecdotal interest of retracing the various paths of his international influence, notably through the translations of the Course in General Linguistics, or the philological fascination with the reconstruction of his virtual system of thought from tantalizing fragments, is it still worth pondering his discontinuous insights as potential contributions to the advancement of today’s linguistics and semiotics? Many have selectively gleaned from his manuscripts elements that appear to be compatible with their own theoretical views and thus have construed these glimpses as harbingers of their own endeavours. However, this is done usually at the cost of glossing over some more problematic statements which seem to be at odds with the particular frames of reference that are selected. Others have simply discarded Saussure’s pronouncements as mildly interesting and grossly overvalued. Reference has been made earlier in this chapter to the downgrading by some American semioticians of the Saussurean “school” to the status of a “minor intellectual tradition” in semiotics. But as early as the 1930s, Trubetzkoy himself had voiced such misgivings. In a letter to Roman Jakobson, who himself was to become a staunch critic of some of Saussure’s theses, Trubetzkoy wrote: “ [...] For inspiration I have reread de Saussure, but on a second reading he impresses me much less. There is comparatively little in the book that is of value; most of it is old rubbish. And what is valuable is awfully abstract, without details.” [letter to Roman Jakobson, 17 May 1932] (Trubetzkoy 2001:255). Naturally, it must be kept in mind that this remark applies to the Course in General Linguistics which was then the only available reference. Nevertheless, even in view of the most recently discovered manuscripts, some contemporary linguists, such as Roy Harris, have passed similarly unkind judgments.
This section will attempt to show that Saussure’s ideas remain relevant in today’s context in as much as they point to problems which are still to be solved and directions which are currently being explored. It is therefore as a mine of heuristic questions and uneasy tentative solutions that Saussure’s contribution to a general science of signs will be considered in this final section.
A recurring theme in the Course in General Linguistics and in Saussure’s own manuscript notes is the notion of “langue” which has challenged all translators of the text into English, and probably into other languages as well. Exegetes and commentators have also inconclusively debated the status of this term, whether it refers to some mental entity, perhaps a sort of Platonician idea, or merely designates a methodological concept, an abstraction that is a part of a heuristic strategy. Saussure asserts at times that “langue” exists in the brain, at other times that it exists in the mass, that is, the collective sociological entity of speakers. The ensuing issue has been, and remains, the articulation of the twin notions of “langue” and “parole”, the latter being no less difficult to translate into English than the former. Some have opted for an ontological distinction on the model of the philosophical tradition that opposes essence and existence or “accidents”; others have reduced the difference to the pragmatic necessity of evaluating instances of “languaging” with respect to the opposite poles of a continuum going from the normative, idealized representation of a language to the open-ended actual utterances that are usually observed in verbal interactions. That Saussure himself was not entirely satisfied with these correlated notions of “langue” and “parole” seems obvious from his numerous attempts to specify the distinction. In fact, in spite of almost a century of controversies, neither Hjelmslev’s conceptual slight of hand that consisted of rewriting the terminological pair as “system” and “process”, nor the Derridean debunking of its metaphysical assumptions, have totally defused the issue. As various linguistics paradigms are still jokeying for the final word regarding the nature and origin of language (e.g. Trabant and Ward 2001), Saussure’s uneasy, often ambiguous circumlocutions and occasional images continue to engage the researchers who get to the manuscript sources rather than accept one of the standardized versions of the Saussurean doxa (e.g. Gandon 2001).
It appears that Saussure struggled inconclusively with the issue of what kind of object is language, that is, the object of general linguistics which he was supposed to teach, and that the notion of “langue” was for him a sort of notion by default. Examining his successive attempts to clarify his thought leads to the evidence that the various characters and aspects he could identify seemed to him contradictory. What has been published to date from the manuscripts discovered in 1996 does not appear to sensibly modify this outlook (Saussure 2002). Excerpts from a draft entitled “De l’essence double du langage” [On the dual essence of language] rehash, if not compound, the ambiguities and uncertainties which Saussure confronted: “Il est profondément faux de s’imaginer qu’on puisse faire une synthèse radieuse de la langue, en partant d’un principe déterminé qui se développe et s’incorpore avec [ ]” [it is definitely a mistake to fancy that it is possible to derive an unproblematic synthesis of langue from a determinate principle which would develop and become embodied in [it]; or: “Quand un système de signes devient le bien d’une collectivité [...] Nous ne savons plus quelles forces et quelles lois vont être mêlées à la vie de ce système de signes”. [Once a sign system has taken root in a social group [...] we do not understand which forces and which laws become involved in the life of this system.] (Saussure 2002: 95 and 289).
“Langue” was the label Saussure attached to the elusive object of general linguistics and which could not be captured by the detailed study of the innumerable languages that could be experienced in the contemporary world and through history. But since, for him, languages constituted merely a subset, albeit an important one, of a more encompassing class of sign systems, the notion of “langue” needed to be given a semiological rather than purely linguistic definition. His agenda was to capture this elusive object and his efforts towards this goal remain relevant today since nobody has yet proposed a convincing answer to Saussure’s pertinent question. As long as it is believed that Saussure had reached a conclusion regarding this problem, it is possible to try and give an explanation of his “theory”, but if, as it is contended here, Saussure merely attempted again and again to come to grips with the intractable difficulty of conceptualizing language as an object of scientific knowledge that transcends the indefinite variety of observable languages and nevertheless accounts for each one of them, understanding the problem is what we should try to achieve without limiting our inquiry to the historical circumstances within which Saussure was immersed during the last decade of the XIXth century.
The great debate of the time was whether languages were kinds of organisms which changed along the same patterns as other organisms’ life cycles or whether they were social institutions based on conventions supported by human mental abilities. In one of his rare references to other linguists reported in the Course in General Linguistics, Saussure designates W.D.Whitney as a valuable exponent of the latter approach. At the same time, he directs a derogatory remark to some insane theorists, without naming them, who support the organicist view. This allusion obviously echoes Whitney’s harsh criticisms of August Schleicher’s crude Darwinism. However, the reference to Whitney is accompanied by some reservations, and, further, his endorsement of the movement which then defined itself by opposition to the organic hypothesis is not expressed in a wholehearted manner. Again and again Saussure returns to the few evidences that led him to grapple with a paradox: “langue” as a set of differential terms is founded on arbitrary conventions that totally escape the conscious intentions of the individuals who use its resources for expressing their thoughts and communicating among themselves. Paradoxically, it is a contract without contracting parties. Because none of the empirical investigations of the multifarious aspects of language communication appear to be sufficient to found a scientific knowledge of this phenomenon, something he calls “langue” must be assumed to exist by default.
A common misreading has contrued “langue” as a static, a-chronic or synchronic system, depending on the temporal order to which it is opposed. But, for Saussure, time is of the essence for understanding the notion of “langue”. For instance, following the sequence of Saussure’s own notes in the column in which Engler lists them in his critical edition of the Course in General Linguistics, one cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the notion of “langue” as a synchronic system, which has often been foregrounded by commentators as an a-chronic mental or cognitive “reality”, is far from being the whole picture as Yong-Ho Choi (2002) has amply illustrated. This set of constraints, that can be expressed as an algorithm or a coherent body of algorithms at a given moment, is conceived by Saussure as an object for which time is of the essence. Again and again, his notes allude to this undeniable characteristic which must be accepted in spite of the equally undeniable evidence of the contrary : “On peut parler à la fois de l’immutabilité et de la mutabilité du signe” (Saussure 1967:165) [the sign can be said to be both immutable and mutable]. This remark appears in the context of attempts at circumscribing the elusive object of general linguistics, and more generally semiology: “Tout ce qui comprend des formes doit entrer dans la sémiologie” (154) [whatever involves forms must come under the purview of semiology]; but contrary to the comtemplative rationality of geometry, “langue” is an irrational force which imposes itself on humans (“La langue est quelquechose que l’on subit” (159) [langue is something which imposes itself upon us]; its very foundations are irrational and it is driven by blind forces (“fondée sur l’irraison même”(162), “des forces aveugles”(171).
Indeed, alterations occur in the system itself and these alterations are not functional in the sense that they would be the effects of deliberate changes made through consensus to a social contract in order to improve its efficiency. Instead, they are neither free nor rational. “Quand intervient le Temps combiné avec le fait de la psychologie sociale, c’est alors que nous sentons que la langue n’est pas libre [...] parceque principe de continuité ou de solidarité indéfinie avec les âges précédents. La continuité enferme le fait d’altération qui est un déplacement de valeurs” (173-174). [When Time combines with the reality of social psychology, we come to realize that langue is not free [...] because of the principle of continuity and solidarity with previous states. Continuity includes alterations in the form of shifting of values.]
This way of thinking is remarkably Darwinian and more specifically adumbrates contemporary speculations on evolutionary semiotics and memetics which construe semiotic systems, including language(s), as semi-autonomous algorithms endowed with an evolutionary dynamic of their own akin to parasitic modes of adaptation, survival and reproduction (e.g., Deacon 1997, Aunger 2000, 2002). Saussure’s puzzling image of langue as somewhat like “a duck hatched by a hen”, whose essential character is to “always escape to some extent individual or social will” and which “exists perfectly only in the mass of brains” (Saussure 1967: 40-41, 51, 57), evokes some kind of yet unclassified organism (169). He specifies his approach to which he seems to be led almost reluctantly through compounding the range of evidence he has reached as a compelling, albeit counterintuitive conclusion: “Notre définition de la langue suppose que nous en écartons tout ce qui est étranger à son organisme, à son système”, “l’organisme intérieur de la langue”, “On s’est fait scrupule d’employer le terme d’organisme, parceque la langue dépend des êtres vivants. On peut employer le mot, en se rappelant qu’il ne s’agit pas d’un être indépendant” (59) [Our definition of langue implies that we discard whatever is foreign to its organism, its system. The inner organism of langue. The word organism is used here reluctantly because langue depends on living organisms. Let us use it any way, keeping in mind that this organism is not independent]. It is interesting to note that this characterization meets the definition of parasitic organism, a recurrent theme in contemporary memetic literature. Furthermore, Saussure’s paradoxical insights do not apply only to the object of linguistics but to semiology as a whole: “La continuité du signe dans le temps, liée à l’altération dans le temps, est un principe de la sémiologie générale” (171) [the continuity of sign in time, linked to its alteration, is a principle of general semiology]. But this continuity depends on transmission “selon des lois qui n’ont rien à faire avec les lois de création” (170) [according to laws which are totally different from the laws of creation]. Saussure repeatedly emphasizes that the social nature of semiological systems is “internal” rather than “external” to these systems (173). Continuity and change belong to their very essence and unambiguously, albeit not explicitly, locate them within an evolutionary process whose description fits, avant la lettre, the neo-Darwinian models in their more contemporary forms. This vision is emphatically underlined in the first Geneva lectures of 1891 in which even pauses in the evolution of “langue” -- what some contemporary evolutionists controversially term “punctuations” -- are denied. (Saussure 1974: 3-14).
Such remarks, and many other of the same vein, have not been foregrounded by the epigones and commentators, or they have been interpreted as mere metaphors. Similarly, Saussure’s assertions regarding the place he envisioned for semiology as a part of general psychology has been glossed over. However, the latter is not less striking. Many written remarks by Saussure anticipate the tenets of modern cognitive neurosciences and evolutionary psychology. His occasional criticisms of Broca’s approach bears upon the restrictive localizations of linguistic functions. “Il y a une faculté plus générale, celle qui commande aux signes” (Saussure 1967: 36) [there exists a more general faculty, one which governs signs]. This faculty is conceived as a brain function which made language possible without being its origin since the law of continuity shows that any “langue” must be transmitted. A definite vision, well ahead of Saussure’s time, emerges from the triangulation of his concise, at times cryptic, assertions: “L’essentiel de la langue est étranger au caractère phonique du signe linguistique” (22) [the essence of langue is alien to the phonic character of linguistic signs]; “La langue n’est pas moins que la parole un objet de nature concrète” (44) [langue is as much as parole a concrete object] and “Tout est psychologique dans la langue” (21) [the whole of langue is psychological]. But shifting the problem to general psychology is also a way to project its solution into an unknown future because Saussure’s conception of psychology is a critical one. It is, like semiology, or signology as he preferred at times to call the science of signs, something to come which is bound to be different from the discipline known by this name at the turn of the century. The condition for the emergence of a psychology that would encompass semiology is that psychology take the temporal dimension into account and overcome its tendency to speculate on intemporal signs and ideas [”[...] sortir absolument de ses spéculations sur le signe momentané et l’idée momentanée”. (Saussure 1974:47). This approach, perhaps, echoes more closely than it is suspected James Mark Baldwin’s (1861- 1934) evolutionary psychology and epistemology. The American psychologist, contemporary of Saussure, whose impact on Piaget and Vygotsky is generally acknowledged, was widely read and discussed in Europe and in France in particular, where he lived from 1908 until his death (Wozniak 1998). Baldwin’s use of Darwinism in the rethinking of the traditional disciplines of his time may have been indeed much less objectionable than Schleicher’s literal and narrow Spencerian applications of evolutionism to the history of languages that Whitney and Saussure considered to be “laughable”. As editor of The Psychological Review and the four-volume Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1904), to which, incidentally, Peirce had contributed the article on sign among others, Baldwin not only put his mark on psychology at the turn of the century but made also many forays into other disciplines, stating for instance that the law of natural selection expresses a principle “which finds appropriate application in all the sciences of life and mind” (1909: 89)
Saussure, who was then inconclusively engaged in an uneasy rethinking of linguistics, claiming that there was not a single linguistic notion which he did not find problematic, was projecting toward an ill-defined future the emergence of new epistemological horizons. Are his tentative ideas now coming of age? Can they provide a useful reference for today’s researchers, a sort of reflexive temporal depth, a heuristic framework beyond the earlier fossilization of some restrictive interpretations? Bringing all the problems he raised and all the insights he jotted on paper in a single, not exclusive purview remains one of the most stimulating and challenging tasks of today. After all, the emergence of the epistemological resource which Saussure called “semiologie” is not necessarily to be found under the official label of semiotics and its cohorts of scholastic debaters. For instance, George Spencer Brown’s logic of distinctions expounded in Law of Forms (1969) and the use of his calculus of indications by Francisco Varela in Principles of Biological Autonomy (1979) pursue one of the tenets of Saussure’s conviction that “tout signe repose purement sur un co-status négatif” [any sign is purely based upon a negative co-status] or that “l’expression simple sera algébrique ou ne sera pas” [the simple expression will be algebraic or will not be at all] (Saussure 1974: 28-29). Such is the goal of today’s algorithmic and computational semiotics. Contemporary efforts to rethink the social sciences in semiological terms bear witness to the continuing of Saussure ‘s seminal ideas (e.g. Baecker 1999, Luhman 1999)
One may wonder whether, once the complete manuscripts left by Saussure have been published in their chronological order irrespective of the prism of the Course in General Linguistics through which previously available autographs were perceived until recently, a novel, perhaps surprising conceptual landscape will emerge. This new contextualisation, both internal and external, may indeed show that Saussure had anticipated theoretical directions, such as evolutionary semiotics and memetics, which he could not fully explore in his own time, given the state of scientific knowledge at the turn of the XXth century, and the linguistic doxa which then prevailed and with respect to which Saussure’s insights were counterintuitive to the point of being scandalous. This will put to test the various versions of Saussurism that have been constructed so far on the basis of limited information, and stimulate anew the semiotic, or semiological, project which Saussure envisioned as an open-ended process when he wrote “Où s’arrêtera la sémiologie? C’est difficile à dire.” (Saussure 1967: 46) [How far will semiology go? It is difficult to predict]. Saussure's questions remain valid and his elusive agenda still provides a challenge for today's spirit of scientific inquiry into the realm of signs and signification.
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Paul Bouissac is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto (Department of French Studies). He is the author of La Mesure des gestes. Prolégomènes à la sémiotique gestuelle (1973), and Circus and Culture (1976), and the editor of the Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of Semiotics (1998). His published articles bear upon issues in the epistemology and history of semiotics, the cultural anthropology of circus performances, the semiotic analysis of gestures and prehistoric rock art.