Semiotics Right and Left

Christopher Norris

  • On Signs: A Semiotics Reader edited by Marshall Blonsky
    Blackwell, 536 pp, £27.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 631 10261 2

The sheer bulk of this volume – as well as its highly miscellaneous character – suggests one of the problems about modern semiotics, considered as a discipline or field of study. It is hard to draw the line as to just what should count as a properly ‘semiotic’ line of enquiry, given that the field extends to every kind of signifying process or activity. At the limit (as in many of the essays here) it is not so much a method, theory or discipline as a generalised pretext for making observations that would otherwise lack any handy descriptive label. Of course there have been those – Saussure and the early Roland Barthes, among others – who held out the prospect of a unified endeavour that would place semiotics on a genuine scientific footing. Such was the dream of method that found its most ambitious expression in the structuralist ‘revolution’ of the human sciences proclaimed by various disciples of Saussure. Linguistics was to serve as the pilot methodology, the basis for a universal science of signs. Anthropology, political theory, psychoanalysis and even (according to Piaget) mathematics and the ‘hard’ sciences – all were to be seen as constituent fields of this overarching programme. Their interests converged on a handful of propositions about the workings of language – derived mostly from Saussure and Jakobson – which seemed to point beyond ‘linguistics’ as such to a much larger theory of mind, culture and signifying systems in general. Semiotics (or semiology, as the French preferred to call it) was set to usher in this bright new age of interdisciplinary endeavour.

Structuralist thinking was characterised chiefly by its faith in systematic modes of explanation. It assumed, that is to say, the possibility of attaining a knowledge that transcended the various first-order languages and cultures which made up its field of application. Thus literary theorists set about discovering the ground-rules of narrative structure and the complex typologies of figure and device that governed the production of literary texts. Levi-Strauss’s great project of structural anthropology was likewise intended to demonstrate the invariant ‘grammars’ of collective representation, such that the analyst could discover an underlying logic at work in the myths, customs and kinship-systems of even the most diverse or far-flung cultures. The goal of these endeavours was to reduce multiplicity to the manageable compass of a unified general theory. Structuralism was in this sense an heir to the tradition of large-scale systematising philosophies that sought a perspective encompassing all local differences of language and culture. It searched for explanatory principles – like Jakobson’s celebrated binary distinction between metaphor and metonymy – which would give the analyst sufficient theoretical grasp to transcend all such natural relativities.

Hence the strongly Aristotelian cast of much early structuralist writing on narrative theory and poetics. Hence also the impressive confidence and sweep with which Barthes, in his Mythologies, claimed to lay bare the signifying codes of ‘bourgeois’ society. Myth today, Barthes explained, was best understood with the aid of Saussure, as a process involving the mystification of language and the treatment of cultural (or class-based) values as if they belonged to some natural, timeless order of things. Thus Saussure’s basic premise – the ‘arbitrary’ nature of the sign – becomes in Barthes’s hands a key to interpreting all kinds of cultural phenomena, from the face of Garbo to all-in wrestling, from striptease to the mythical Brain of Einstein. Theory lays claim to a massively generalised explanatory power, as it does when Jakobson advances his famous definition of poetic language as that which ‘projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination’. In each case there is a kind of linguistic a priori which enables the theorist to move beyond mere description to the level of systematic method.

It is a mistake to assimilate ‘semiotics’ and ‘structuralism’ as if they were the same activity under different names. Undoubtedly the revival of interest in semiotic theory had much to do with the emergence of Parisian structuralism as an intellectual gathering-point during the Sixties. But there was always, in the structuralist enterprise, a commitment to paradigmatic notions of system and method that set it apart from other, more free-ranging styles of semiotic activity. It was the failure to achieve this ambition – or the problems thrown up in pursuit of it – that led to the widespread shift of direction signalled by French post-structuralism. It is simplifying matters to treat the prefix ‘post-’ as suggesting any kind of straightforward theoretical advance beyond the structuralist paradigm. At most, it is a label of convenience adopted in the effort to make narrative sense of a complex and bewildering history. But it does have some point if taken to suggest the passage from a structuralist hankering for system to a broadly post-structuralist insistence that language must always exceed or elude the grasp of any such methodical enterprise.

This shift came about under pressure from various quarters. It was prompted partly by Derrida’s showing how the concept of ‘structure’ tended to preserve all the deadlocked antinomies and blind-spots of classic philosophical reason. Then there were the lessons of Lacanian psychoanalysis, denying all appeal to a transcendental subject outside and above the unconscious play of linguistic figuration. Among literary critics, Barthes took perhaps the most decisive step when he announced (in S/Z, 1970) an end to the structuralist quest for some universal ‘grammar’ of narrative forms, and a beginning to that new kind of critical activity that would liberate the text from all such oppressive regimes. Post-structuralism was thus borne in on a wave of revolt against the scientistic notions that had so far characterised the modern semiotic turn. The effect was to question those established methodologies that had staked their claim on a firm distinction between language and meta-language, text and theory. Henceforth such appeals could only be regarded as evidence of a lingering attachment to old, logocentric habits of thought. Of course this didn’t mean – far from it – that ‘theory’ would be chastened and subdued to the point of closing down the whole post-structuralist enterprise. What it signalled was the growing awareness that theory was itself just another kind of writing, uncommonly alert to its own textual ruses but not, for that reason, wanting to escape into the pure heaven of abstraction.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in