Some Quickie Linguistics from Lee and Robert Scholes' Textual Power

(last revised 2/16/07)

How do we make meaning with our language?  When we write, are we merely representing the world within the supposedly unfortunate limits of language (Platonic view)?  Or are we creating an actual world of words (W. Gass)?  And what about the strangeness of language's ability to become "transparent" as we read (T. Todorov)?

These are questions linguists play with all the time, and questions that writers can sometimes benefit from (and, of course, all this leads to the very useful deconstruction of harmful binaries).

So, linguistics is the study of how language, or sign systems, mean anything, of how words work in our world (or how the world seems to work with language).

Most people think that language is a reflection of reality (that's called mimesis), but this idea is actually from "old-school" linguistic theory (as opposed to something God told Moses).  In other words, this old-school theory says words represent, or stand in for, the "real" world.

Linguists (structuralists up the wazoo) started to shift from the the idea of representation as they thought more about the links between the word on the page (signifier), it's conceptual meaning (signified), and the way all this points to "the real," they began to see the links as more arbitrary than absolute.  In other words, how words link to "the real" is constructed by our cultures.  Here is a chart to show you some of the differences between linguists (Scholes 96):



Frege expression sense reference
Ogden & Richards symbol thought referent
Charles S. Peirce sign interpretant object
Ferdinand de Saussure signifier signified ----
Derrida signifier ---- ----

In a nutshell, Peirce said there were words, connotations, and reality (which is rather Platonic).  Saussure said we can't access "reality" without words and connotations, so let's not even talk about the real.  Derrida said connotations are words, thus everything we have access to is language (words, or signifiers, in a web of meaning).Saussure was revolutionary in that he suggested that signifieds were also arbitrary or constructed (that makes sense since signifieds are concepts, and concepts are linguistic). 

This is one reason why a number of contemporary thinkers don't think of language as representation, but as presentation, or creation (Gass's World within the Word).  This is why so many poststructuralists and postmodernists talk about the author being dead.  This is why authorial intention is relatively meaningless (or I should say, is it's own text, another text different from the story the author wrote).

Understanding a little bit about contemporary linguistics, and deconstruction theory, can help you understand how to deconstruct potentially harmful or false ideologies.  Studying these theories can also help you understand avant-garde forms of writing, at least a little bit more.  These theories can also help you understand some of the vocabulary we use to comment on texts (mimesis, for instance, is based on the idea that words represent "the real," or at least give the illusion thereof; because of my background in linguistics, I have a hard time reading a text in class as if it were about real people, and thus I focus on craft, or language, issues).

Let's look at examples of arbitrariness so you can understand a bit more of why Saussure (and Derrida) focus on the constructedness of meaning (and the difficulties of having absolute clarity in representation):

Signifier Signified The Real World
"tree" concept of a tree in our heads

(what exactly would that be?  isn't it different for everyone?)

the "real" tree outside

(but don't we only see that tree with our own colored web of signifers?  with our own varied and loaded stories which are always already linguistic?  thus go back to signifieds, which also have cultural, agreed-upon meanings...thus go back to signifiers, webs and webs of signifiers pointing at other signifiers to get and give meaning, which is always, already a construct)

"arbol" concept of a tree in a mexican head

(why don't we use this signifier instead?  what's stopping us?  and might a mexican head have different concepts of tree than an american head?  in other words, meaning is also a cultural construct)


(which means nature to you?  the green, manicured garden?  the sonoran desert's saguaros?  happy tree friends cartoons that always end with the maiming of a cuddly, little squirrel or bunny?)


Derrida and others talk about the endless chain, or web, of signifiers (cut off from anything non-verbal), leaving only traces of meaning behind them.  In other words, Derrida suggested that all we really have access to are signifiers (rather than anything "real"), a constantly negotiated meaning.  Scholes says it this way: "The deconstructive critics argue that reference is a mirage of language, that there is no simple reference or unmediated perception, the the world is always already textualized by an archewriting or system of differentiation" (92).

We have meaning because each signifier (word) suggests a difference from every other signifier, but also only means something different in the context of the other signifiers' differences (Derrida calls this Differance, to differ and defer meaning).

In the world of identity, culture, and politics, deconstruction theory, Derrida's main methodological approach coming out of his re-readings of Saussure, looks at the way our culture tries to pin language down to black and white, hierarchical meanings.   George Bush, for instance, uses black and white rhetoric to single out the "evil doers."  Deconstruction theory would look at the way this language is trying to simplify, and solidify, something that is much more complex (most politicians use an ultra black and white, hierarchical rhetoric, and so are easy to deconstruct).

Postmodern (and neo-postmodern) writers basically play with and foreground the arbitrariness of signifiers and signifieds.  A word doesn't mean one, clear thing.  It doesn't have an absolute meaning, or fit into an easy hierarchical binary, except in the fact that we have (absurdly or otherwise) agreed on it's meaning, which can be shifted at any moment, at least a little (signifiers are constrained by other signifiers, or by agreed upon meanings, thus we really have no idea what utterly chaotic meaning would look like; texts of bliss will always be able to be recuperated into meaning in some way).  So "crazy" postmodern writing is an attempt to begin deconstructing accepted, easy meanings and binaries in reader's heads and in their cultures.