What is the difference between
signifier & signified?
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
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
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
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'
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
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!
'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.'
Louis-Jean Calvet: Pour et contre Saussure, Payot, 1975, Paris
Jonathan Culler: Saussure , Fontana Paperbacks, 1976
Ellen Dissanayke: Homo aestheticus, The Free Press, 1992,
Antony Easthope: British Poststructuralism, Routledge, 1988
F. Saussure: Course in General Linguistics, McGraw-Hill Paperbacks,
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