Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Intelligibility

The following is a brief compilation of theories of language and meaning drawn from the work of Saussure, Gramsci, Lacan, and Barthes, among others…

Language and Meaning:

Much of what is usually referred to as "postmodern theory" derives from, or in response to, Ferdinand de Saussure's work in linguistics. His theories have had enormous influence because of the way they challenge fundamental assumptions about the production of meaning and the relationship between language and the world.

Saussure conceives of language as a system of different signs. A sign consists of a relation between a signifier (the material aspect of a sign) and a signified (the concept). He argued that their relation is "arbitrary," in the sense that it is a matter of cultural convention. There is no natural or inherent reason the signifier "blue" is coupled with the particular signified that it is in English. In this way, he challenged the commonsensical view of the relation between language and "reality:" that "reality" is meaningful in itself and all language does is give the meaningful entities of the world names. In other words, that language is simply a nomenclature, a set of labels placed on pre-existing phenomena. If this were true, however, then all languages of the world could be easily translated into one another because they are really nothing more than different labels for the "same thing"---the world "out there" is presumed to be the same in all cultures. But, as Saussure points out, languages are not readily translated into one another. In fact, some of their differences are not even translatable at all. Languages don't just differ over minor "shades" of meaning, a comparative study reveals sharp differences in the world they articulate. The most revolutionary element in Saussure's work is his insistence that languages don’t produce different versions of the same reality, they in effect produce different realities.

That different languages conceptualize the world in significantly different ways is demonstrated by the fact that even such "physical" or "natural" phenomena as colours are not "the same" in different languages. Russian does not have a term for blue. The words goluboi and sinij which are usually translated as "light blue" and "dark blue" refer to what are in Russian distinct colours not different shades of the same colour. The English word brown has no equivalent in French. It is translated into brun, marron, or even jeune depending on the context. In Welsh the colour glas, though often translated as "blue," contains elements which English would identify as "green" or "grey." Because the boundaries are placed differently in the two languages the Welsh equivalent of the English "grey" might be glas or llwyd:

The differences we readily experience as independent of language are in fact constructed by it. This does not mean that language creates "actuality" (that is, trees, rocks, buildings, people) but that language turns undifferentiated, meaningless nature into a differentiated, meaningful cultural reality. The most significant feature of Saussure's work is the argument that language precedes experience. We have no direct access to the world; our relationship to it is always mediated by, and dependent on, language.

Semiotics and Codes:

Saussure's conclusions about spoken and written language have been extended to the study of all forms of cultural signification. The idea that meaning is not natural, but cultural, not universal (unchanging), but historical (changing), is the basis of semiotics, the study of signification, or how things mean. In semiotic terms, all the artifacts of a culture constitute "texts"--- photographs, novels, clothing, film, food, architecture, body language, and so on. Whenever we understand a phenomenon, we do so because we know the culturally appropriate codes through which that phenomenon could be made intelligible. A dream, for instance, has no meaning in itself. We can interpret it (give it meaning) only when we place it in a grid of codes: we can understand it in terms of pre-modern codes, in which case dreams are seen as visitations of the gods or prophetic pronouncements, or interpret it in terms of codes of Freudian psychoanalysis according to which dreams are expressions of thoughts and emotions repressed in the unconscious. Which codes are taken to produce the "correct" or "true" meaning can have great historical and cultural variance. Depending on time and place, we use different sets of codes to understand "femininity" or "masculinity," "fashionable" or "dowdy," "responsible" or "self indulgent". None of these categories are universal or timeless.

Language and Subjectivity:

Saussure's notion of the fundamental role of language in human society---as the medium which structures our access to reality---has influenced a wide range of disciplines: linguistics, anthropology, film theory, history, sociology, political theory, literary studies, aesthetic theory, philosophy and psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's work addresses the relation between language and consciousness. Subjectivity is produced in language; there is no part of human experience that is completely outside of, or free from, it. At the moment we take our first breath, we are inserted into language, into a signifying system of differences. "It's a boy," or "it’s a girl" positions us differently within the culturally meaningful. And which position we occupy within Gender, in turn, has determining effects on which other positions/meanings are available or unavailable to us. Identity, then, is a matter of social intelligibility: the subject must learn to make sense of "the world," as well as become intelligible to it.

According to Lacan, language not only structures the relation between the self and the world "outside" it, it is the precondition for consciousness itself. Prior to acquiring language, the infant experiences only undifferentiated sensations, a boundary-less world with no distinction between "self" and anything else. Only when the infant learns to grasp the concept of language does consciousness begin, because language provides the means to differentiate. In Lacan's example, the first "division" is between the infant and its mother. The infant becomes capable of distinguishing "mother" as something separate from itself, when it can recognize the basic logic of signification: that one particular sound means "mother," and a different one means "baby." It is this ability to differentiate between "self" and "(m)other" that enables the most basic condition of consciousness: an awareness of oneself as a distinct entity.

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