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 Spiros Doikas [CV]  
   What is the difference between signifier & signified?
Essay   

Before one ventures to embark upon a discussion concerning the essence and quintessence of semiology as first formulated by Saussure (thus I interpret the semantics of this essay question - or, using Chomskyan nomenclature, its deep structure) it is imperative to provide the reader with a framework concerning the raw material wherefrom this theory has sprung. And this theory would be very unlikely to have come into light without the necessary pre-existence of an advanced semiotic system - language. The reason for the above being twofold: firstly, because language is the major (and most sophisticated) semiotic system to undergo scrutiny; and, secondly, because the theory itself has been mediated via language. And if language is an interpretation of the world then semiology is an interpretation of the interpretation of the world. (At this point we could draw a useful analogy with Platonic Ideas, and the human representations, twice removed from the essence...) Or, it could even constitute a criticism of the interpretation of the world; indeed, aren't all interpretations highly critical acts? Thus, as it is inferred from the foregoing arguments, one has to start by talking about language.

Language is perhaps the most anthropomorphic and anthropocentric of all the great human ficta (inventions). It is the prerequisite myth for the existence of any other myths. A work of fiction that has acquired proposterously alethiological dimensions so that humans have put it in the mouth of their paramount fictum: God. Perhaps, this devious manipulation of causality may constitute rank blasphemy for logical beings, on condition that the concept of blasphemy could don, for the sake of this argument, a secularized, non-theological guise. But why all this ado about language? And why all these -apparently- irrelevancies about God and the universe and everything? Because in a deeper level one can see that the metaphor of the language as a signifier to the signified of existence could achieve remarkably literal dimensions.

At this point let us get into the particulars of Saussurian semiotics so that we can later recapture the threads of my incomplete argument with more assurance and vehemence.

Saussure analyzed the term of the linguistic sign into a bi-partite, interdependent entity: that of the signifier and the signified. The meaning of the sign depended on the identification of a particular signifier with a particular signified. Signified standing for the abstract concept (or the thing-in-itself or the Platonic Idea to lapse into philosophical jargon) and signifier the word or image acoustique that refers to the signified. This oversimplification, however, being extremely problematic at this early stage of exposition, as it doesn't demonstrate the enormous complexity and unpredictability of such correlations.

Two principles were related to the existence and function of signs: the first one being their arbitrary nature and the second one being their linearity. Of these two I will further pursue the former by simply dismissing the latter as the explicit statement of language's implicit dependence to temporality in order to unfold.
Thus, I believe, that the arbitrary nature of the sign is the key concept in semiotics which has repercussions on a wide ideological spectrum. Simply explained, what unites the word with its meaning is based on purely arbitrary grounds. Thus, there is no reason why a dog should be named thus, there is nothing intrinsic in the nature of 'doggedness' that necessitates a lexico-phonetic representation of this kind. ( an exception to this being onomatopoeic words - words that seem to imitate the sounds they refer to - like 'whack, fizz, crackle; and interjections which are closely related to onomatopoeia).

However, even when this widely accepted arbitrariness is concerned there seem to arise dissident voices to this, on the one hand logical proposition, but on the other unverifiable. Foster, in her reconctruction of Primordial Language, criticizes Saussure's claim that the linguistic sign was unmotivated and arbitrary because there is no detectable relationship between sound and meaning. On the contrary, she maintains, 'even after this relationship became obscured, the patterning and interrelationship of features, both of sound and meaning, continue to be so firm that we can hardly consider today's sign to be arbitrary '

At a prima faecie examination we realise that the difference between signifier and signified is a very pragmatic one. And this can be amply demonstrated with a very simple example. Let us suppose that a very famous comedian is dissapointed by the fact that whilst the whole audience is roaring with laughter a single individual remains silent. When the comedian picks on that specific individual asking him why he doesn't laugh, it transpires that he is foreign. He had access to the signifiers of the language (he could physically hear the words) but had limited or no access to the signifieds (he could not translate the 'sound images' into meaningful concepts).
A very interesting medical condition which characteristically exemplifies the dual functioning of signifier/signified is called nominal aphasia, a primary symtom thereof being the inability to recognize words and speak the right word. The individual afflicted by this condition mentally possesses all the correct signifiers as well as all the correct signifieds. The problem appearing at the crucial stage at which the linguistically standardised signifier has to be identified with the appropriate signified. Thus, the concept of the idiolect can be taken a step further, perhaps, reaching a potential semantic extreme of idioglossia. Or should we use Saussure's term and say that we are witnessing an extremely idiosyncratic case of usage of language in its mode of 'parole'?

Saussure's theory of the sign has given rise to many other criticisms. Lacan's is one of the most famous is he seemingly reappropriates Saussure's theory giving it a different dimension. The initial difference is on the level of primary exposition. Lacan uses the schema S/s in which capital S stands for the signifier and lower case s for the signified. The other differences are the following:

in the position each element occupies in the schema: whereas the signifier is at the base of the schema in Saussure, Lacan places it at the apex in order to symbolize the abiding of the signified under the signifier.
in the suppression of the arrows thought to represent the mutual pressuposition of the two sides of the sign.
the only feature surviving in Lacan is the bar between the two components. But whereas it is simply posited in Saussure, Lacan proposed to interpret it as a barrier resisting signification, and it is central to his theory of the signifier.

Jacobson went as far as to conceive the bond between signifier/signified as partially motivated, basing his contention on the fact that intricate phonological connections between grammatical concepts and phonological expressions may cast doubt on the arbitrary nature of the sign.

Earlier on I talked about language as being a signifier to the signified of existence. This statement is in an urgent need for disambiguation. What do I mean by 'signified of existence'? Is it by any means the transcendental signified - God? Or, is it simply the material state of things as they have come to be without any unnecessary metaphysical interferences? Would it be right to say that 'signified of existence' can be replaced with the equally vague term of 'meaning'? Does meaning reside in the world to be 'expressed' or 'reflected' in language? Or is it actually produced by language or, more accurately, by the reader or viewer who reproduces it? This final contention reflects Saussure's theory, pushed to the extremes by the post-sructuralists. Thus, meaning does not reside in the world at all. The symbol has effaced what it attempts to represent. As Lacan says 'the symbol manifests itself first as the murder of the thing '.

Thus, from a post-structuralist perspective, the writer's quest fot transcendence, or 'ultimate meaning' is always impeded by the arbitrariness of language, by the unstable relationship between signifier/signified. One of the aims of deconstruction is to show how the written text strives to eradicate or conceal the gap between language and the reality it purports to embody. In the work of Larkin, inter alias, one can see the text openly declaring the absence of any final act of any referent or transcendental signification. It confronts its readers with the concept of absolute zero. The explanation for this is to be found in Larkin's deep and abiding agnosticism. Post-structuralism recognizes that the quest for 'full meaning' in language was originally postulated on a belief in the presence of God as the final guartantor of that meaning.('In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' - Bible).

And as, in the ideological wasteland of our post-theistic era, the lack of the transcendental signified has never been so pungent, we are confronted with the inability to positively assign any sort of absolute meaning to any signified whatsoever. One can say that. at least, we can face reality with more honesty, as we don't have to invent anachronistic signifiers that represent metachronistic signifieds. And, to revert the dictum that, 'no one has yet seen a signified without a signifier ', I shall say that many have claimed to have 'seen' a signifier without a signified. According to Derridean scripture (expressed with typically obscure profundity, or profound obscurity- one is never quite sure which), writing (the totality of signifiers?) is ' the name of the gesture that effaces the presence of a thing and yet keeps it legible '. What I think is meant here by Derrida is that by means of our signifiers we can only have a limited insight into the nature of reality because these signifiers are our construction, inevitably reflecting the imperfections of our critical and analytical faculties.

What could constitute a logical impasse in the normal duality of signifier/signified is a specific extra-linguistic system of signification that possesses images acoustiques as well. Music is a system consisting of musical symbols (signifiers) that are used in a similar way that words are used (for example the common existence of the fundamental principle of linearity), but the meaning of it (signified) seems to be obscure and opaque. However, not few were those to suggest that music has a higher value of signification than language. Schopenhauer, for example, claimed that music, by virtue of not portraying something that exists in the world (unlike all other arts), but something that doesn't exist in the world, identifies itself with the will which is the key concept in his theory. The will for him is the blind force responsible for more or less everything, in other words, an alternative synonym, an atheistic reinterpretation, of God. Implied in this syllogism is that music is the transcendental signifier and signified. In this case, we have a tautological relation between the two, normally, antithetical and complementary concepts of S/s. But perhaps this observation should be included in a text that deals with the pathological aspects of the symptomatology of the non-linguistic sign.

In a final analysis, the essential point about the theory of the sign is the disproportion between the strong interest shown by non-linguists and the rerservations of the linguists themselves. Linguists consider the sign a linguistic impasse, its sole function being to relate the two orders of meaning and sound. Their only concern is that such a role is performed, whatever the modalities. Conversely, for non-linguists, the very notion of the sign connotes language which is integral to the structuralist project. And this is why in the beginning of my essay I reflected on the importance of language as a framework for a further comprehension of the function of sign-theory. It is inevitably the only line of argument that, apart from encompassing strictly linguistic material, places Saussure's theory in a wider socio-cultural context. Thus it proves to be a more humanist approach as it relates not only to a linguistic reality but, also, to a social reality. To study humans, is essentially to study the way in which human experience is organised. Thus, when we speak of the human tendency to organize things into systems, we place ourselves in a Saussurian line of thought.

Now, the wheel has come full circle as I have attempted to explain my apparently cryptic and irrelevant glosso-theological introduction. As we have seen from the foregoing, the concept that lies hidden between the Saussurian dichotomy discussed herein, is one with the highest degree of semantic volatility and inflammability - meaning. So, I shall finalise my argument by reaching the tip of my inverted semantic pyramid - hopefully without invoking the assistance of les pompiers.

Thus, the only retort to the vain logomachy about 'meaning' in language and literature can be given by means of the Doctrine of Excremental Anti-Fallacy (DEAF). This doctrine has been postulated and endorsed by many highly established and venerable figures of the literary academia. Beginning with Antonin Artaud (: 'All writing is pigshit') and continuing with old toad Larkin (: 'books are a load of shit'), one could prolong this paradigmatic discourse ad infinitum; the only thing adding variation would be the quality, source, and obscenity of the excremental substance in question.

Perhaps, more idiosyncratic could be Beckett's case: his DEAF would probably contain the epithet pink.

Merde, c'est finis... vamos a la playa!

P.S. 'It is a misfortune having to live in a country in which there is no humour. It is even a greater misfortune, however, if you live in a country in which you need humour to survive.' Brecht


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Louis-Jean Calvet: Pour et contre Saussure, Payot, 1975, Paris
Jonathan Culler: Saussure , Fontana Paperbacks, 1976
Ellen Dissanayke: Homo aestheticus, The Free Press, 1992, New York
Antony Easthope: British Poststructuralism, Routledge, 1988
F. Saussure: Course in General Linguistics, McGraw-Hill Paperbacks, 1966
Schopenhauer A. : The World as Will and Representation, Dover Publications, N.Y.,1966 (v.I, II - out of two)
Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logicophilosophicus, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975


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