The saussurean theory of language and its influence on a literary theory

Ferdinand de Saussure – Swiss linguist, a founder of modern structural linguistcs.
An attempt to apply to literature his methods and insights laid down in “Course in General
Linguistics” (1916) resulted in the emergance of a new movement in literary theories called
structuralism that flourished in the 1960s. Its ambition was to discover underlying structure of
literature; it tried to analyse literature in the most scientific and schematic way. A literary text was
for structuralists a structural whole and they wanted to find relations between the elements that
consisted it.
Saussure viewed the language as a system of signs, which was to be studies “synchronically” –
studied as a complete system at a given point in time – rather than “diachronically”, in its historical
• Three types of linguistic activity:
– langage – the broadest concept of language; general potential of the human beings to
produce language. It can be divided into langue and parole
– langue – a linguistic system that we all have to acquire in order to be able to produce
discourse that will be intelligible to others; it’s a product passively assimilated by
individuals; it’s homogenious
– parole – this kind of language that is already produced; concept of language that is concrete
realization of the rules available from the system; it’s the only aspect of language to which
we have an access; those are particular areas of speech that we can analyse in order to
abstract the rules of system; it’s heterogenious
• The concept of a linguistic sign:
Up to de Saussure, it was believed that the linguistic sign was meaningful only because it was
related to some kind of a fragment of empirical reality. The idea was that there was a linguistic sign
like word and there was an object, a thing in empirical reality that it referred to.
Saussure rejects this idea by saying that the linguistic sign should not be seen in relation to external
For him, each sign is to be seen as being made up of:
– a signifier (MARK: a sound image, or its graphic equivalent)
– a signified (IDEA: the concept or meaning)
(e.g. the three black marks c – a – t are a signifier which evoke the signified ‘cat’ in an English
The MARK is meaningful not because it refers to external reality but because it refers to some kind
of a concept, an idea in our mind.
The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary – there’s nothing natural in the
conncection of the signifier of the mark and the signified that is the idea.
Linear nature of the signifier – there is no sign in isolation, a sign always placed in a context,
referred to other signs.
Why do we understand a sign?
We place a sign ‘cat’ among other signs and we derive the meaning from the differences amond the
signs in a system. ‘Cat’ has a meaning not in itself, but because it is not a ‘cap’ or ‘cad’ or ‘bat’.
• Two dimension of language:
– paradigmatic – principle “either or”; between signs is this relationship that shows linguistic
signs that are interchangeable; elements can substitute – when we create a sentence, we
choose from paradigms; e.g. paradigm of personal pronouns (I, you, he/she/it) or paradigm
of verbs (read/swim/write)
– syntagmatic – principle “and and”; we arrange signs in lines, in linear relationship with other
signs – when we have chosen the elements from paradigms, we combine them
In language, there are only differences, oppositions!
Influence on literary theory
– Jakobson (see point 6 & 7)
– Levi-Strauss, “The Structuralist Study of Myth”
He introduced linguistic method to the study of a myth and took the myth of Oediphus.
Lévi-Strauss saw a basic paradox in the study of a myth. On one hand, mythical stories are
fantastic and unpredictable: the content of myth seems completely arbitrary. On the other
hand, the myths of different cultures are surprisingly similar. He proposed that universal
laws must govern mythical thought producing similar myths in different cultures.
He divided the whole myth into smaller units called mythemes – like in minimal pairs, the
mythemes differed in some way and the meaning lied in the relationship. He grouped all the
mythemes that belonged to a paradigm, e.g.: paradigm one: overstating family relations;
paradigm two: understating family relations thus arriving at an opposition. He showed that
myths consist of elements that oppose each other but also elements that “mediate”, or
resolve, these opppositions.
Basically, Strauss claimed that it’s possible to arrive at the meaning of a literary text by
searching for the smallest units of meanings and arranging them in binary oppositions.
The basic premise of Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” is that myth is like
language, or rather is language. Myth is not only conveyed by language, it also functions
like language in the manner described by de Saussure: his differentiation between “langue”
and “parole”. According to Levi-Strauss a myth also has its langue which is the synchronous
structure which enables the specific parole of a certain myth. While details may vary from
myth to myth, the structure remains the same.
– Barthes “Myth Today”
Barthes borrowed the tools from de Saussure to explain the theory of cultural myths.
For Barthes, myth is a kind of a sign system that is smuggling its own meanings to our
consciousness without us being aware that it’s happening. What Barthes calls a myth is
actually a manner in which a culture signifies and grants meaning to the world around it.
Ideology according to Barthes’ version in “Myth Today” is not entirely concealed and is
subject for scrutiny through its cultural manifestations. These manifestations, mythologies
according to Barthes, present themselves as being “natural” and are therefore transparent.
What Barthes is after in his analysis of mythologies is to reveal the ideological nature of
culture’s underling myth.
Barthes follows de Saussure’s discussion regarding the nature of a linguistic sign and he
characterizes myth a second class of signification. What was the sign in the first order of
language (for example the signifier “cigarette” and the signified of an object made of paper
and tobacco) turns into a signifier in the second order (signifying lung cancer). In other
words, myth for Barthes is a realm of second class signification which could be seen as a
cultural association. Bathes gives the example of a magazine cover portraying a African
child in uniform saluting the French flag. The first level of signification is the denotation
one – the child saluting the flag. But in the second level of signification, that of myth and
connotation, the sign becomes a signifier and the child hails France as a great empire.
– Todorov “Poetics”
Todorov used de Saussure’s concept of paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations when
considering the structure of a literary text.
He divided the countless interrelationships to be observed in a literary text into two major
groups: relations between copresent elements (in praesentia -> syntagmatic relations) and
relations between elements present and absent (in absentia -> paradigmatic relations). The
relations in absentia are relations of meaning and symbolization. A certain signifier signifies
a certain signified, a certain phenomenon evokes another, a certain episode symbolizes an
idea, another illustrates a psychology. The relations in praesentia are relations of
configuration, of construction. Here, it is by power of causuality that the phenomena are
linked to each other -> some parts overlap in a given text.
– R.Barthes “The death of the author”
Barthes in his work tries to answer several questions:
“Writing is the destruction of every voice, every origin”. It is “the black-and-white where all
identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes” -> individuality of
an author and his identity is lost and is no longer of a concern to us. Writing is nothing more
than a practice and process of signification (interplay of signifiers which compose the
plurality of meaning.
It’s giving meaning to a story by looking at an author -> biography of an author is a key to
understanding a given book. Criticism focuses on the figure of an author and “seeks an
explanation of the work in the person of its producer”. Barthes disapproves of it. For him,
only text is important, what is actually written.
Author -> someone who is impersonal so he is not a person (!) rather a construct, part of the
text, part of the game. He is born at the same time that his text is born (he does not precede
it). He is a linguistic entity. What’s more, for Barthes, modern writer is like a scribe/scriptor
– rewrites codes, copies, imitates. He uses language and different discourses. He has no
traditional godlike status of an author who creates masterpieces. A great author is someone
who is able to use the linguistc system in a proper way, translates structures and codes into
particular messages and stories. He is not a psychological entity. His text is “a fabric of
quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture”. He takes his ideas from a “readymade
lexicon” and arrives at new meanings.
The author dies because he is unnecessary – it is language that speaks, not the author (speech
acts -> meaning + action, e.g. I hereby declare -> declaration and performance). Language
structures are meaningul in themselves, performative function of a language eliminates the
personal “I” from the text. Author is not important, language is powerful enough to convey a
meaning. Language fosters the death of the author. The moment the author dies, the reader is
born. The death of the author gives freedom of interpretation for the reader -> you are more
free to play with the language.
– T.S.Elliot “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
In his work, Elliot emphasizes the anti-romantic nature of a modern poetry.
In romantism, poets through poetry expressed themselves and their emotions. According to
Elliot, however, being personal in poetry is an error: “poetry is not a turning loose of
emotion, but escape from emotion; it’s not an expression of personality; but an escape from
personality”. A great poet should be a medium through which emotions are expressed.
An idea of the catalyst – two gases are mixed in the presence of a platinum and form an
acid. The combination takes place only if the platinum is present but the newly formed acid
contains no trace of platinum. Thus, a poet should be like platinum – “the more perfect the
artist, the more completely seperate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which
Instead of expressing himself, a good poet ought to use images to evoke particular feeling in
the readers – OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVE: the only way of expressing emotion in the
form of art is by finding an “objective correlative” – a set of objects, a situation, a chain of
events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion.
There is no work and poet existing alone!!! The emotional of art shoul be impersonal.
– anti-romantic approach to prose/poetry
– a writer/poet should not express himself explicitly in his work, he should be invisible
– writer/poet and his work are connected; writer/poet does not exist aside from his work
– it is language that speaks in a poem/novel etc. not an author; they both agree that texts
should be read in isolation from the external world and context
– Elliot deals with poetry, Barthes with prose, narration
– Barthes treats a literary text in a struturalist way, Elliot is a more connceted with New
Criticism and the formalist method
– Barthes treats a writer as a mere scriptor, copist; Elliot emphasizes the role of a poet in
constructing structural emotions – working up common feelings into artistic feelings
– Barthes want to get rid of an author completely, Elliot only wants to divert interest from the
poet to the poetry; he says that the emotion of art should be impersonal, but he doesn’t
mention anything about the actual death of a poet. In his case, it’s rather the death of a
personal poetry or, as Elliot names it, extinction of personal poetry
Russian Formalism – a formalist method developed independently from New Criticism which
focused on the form of a literary text rather than on the content. It tried to introduce scientific
grounds and scientific basis for the analysis of literature. At first they put a great emphasis on
phonetical aspects of language that is on sounds. They differentiated between poetic language and
everyday langauge.
Poet’s art lies in deforming reality to make it fresh.
• Shklovsky “The Resurrection of the word”
Today, words are dead and language has become a kind of cementary due to the process of
automatization of the perception of common words; transparency of words.
Poetic words, on the other hand, lose their transparency and become visible. Thus poetry has an
ability to widen our perception of the world. A word does not tear away from the reality but it
allows us to see this reality anew.
Through automatized words the reality is fixed and stable; thanks to poetry reality starts to be
brought to life again.
• Shklovsky “Art as Technique”
– poetic language and everyday langauge are not the same
– the autonomy of poetic language does not mean that the words are torn away from the real
objects; rather than that, new words that we see in poetry allow us to experience a whole
new perception of the world
– defamiliarization/estrangement (ostranienieje) – ressurecting the word, making it alive
once again; refreshing our perspective of seeing the reality. Something that we are familiar
with is presented to us in a way that is no longer familiar, e.g. Tolstoy makes the familiar
seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing
it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time -> disautomatization of
– not reducing a word to the referential function; it should always add something to our
perception of reality
– perception – artistic experience is based on it; artistic experience is experience of form –
experiencing words as forms that have particular sounds, not as meanings (e.g. aliteration,
rhythm, rhymes, etc. – they enhance the form, enable us to treat a word like a word, like a
sound, not in an automatized manner)
– sensation of sounds – sounds sound different, they do not only coney a message
New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the
middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading particularly of poetry, to discover
how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. It was
sometimes referred to as American Formalism (as opposed to Russian Formalism).
Fundamental concepts:
• “death of the author”
T.S.Elliot “Tradition and Individual Talent”
– poetry is a continual extinction of personality (anti-romantic approach)
– not personal emotions but structural emotions (an effect of working up common feelings
into artistic feelings) should be found in poems
– poetry should be an escape from personality
– the emotion of art is impersonal
• poem as an emotive language, not referential (symbolic) -> Ogden and Richards
• close reading
I.A.Richards “Practical Criticism”
– poem is a verbal icon
– all respectable poetry invites close reading
– close reading -> getting rid of the external context (historical, political, ideological facts) of
a text and instead focusing on scrupulous analysis of the rhetorical mechanisms of a given
– autotelic nature of a poem
• poem as a mixture of texture and structure
J.C.Ransom “Criticism as Pure Speculation”
– texture – idiomatic and local particularity of a poem, e.g. diction, meter, rhyme, that can’t be
– structure – paraphrasable core of a poem; we can transform it to another statement
– poem – a logical structure having a local texture; prose – a structure only
• irony as a quintessence of a poem
Cleanth Brooks “The Well-Wrought Urn”
– irony – the avoidance of sentimentality through incorporation of multiple attitudes in a single
work -> it is the resolution of these internal tensions that gives a literary work its strength; it
doesn’t have to be a logical resolution
– poetry based on incongruity – TENSION
– poem works upon tensions; various tensions between the different elements of a poem
– language of a poem is a language of paradox; in the end we have the unity of incongruities
• a poem as an autonomous and organic unity
Cleanth Brooks “The Formalist Critics”
– the primary concern of criticism is the problem of unity – the kind of whole which the
literary work forms or fails to form, and the relation of the various parts to each other in
building up this whole -> organic idea of a text: parts incorporable into the whole poem;
poem is unity
– in successful work, format (the way the poem is written) and content (the meaning of the
poem) cannot be seperated; if the form is changed, the meaning also changes
Cleanth Brooks “The Heresy of Paraphrase”
– form and content are inseparable
– the heresy of paraphrase – it is impossible to reduce the poem to its logical content only
(form and content are one!)
– it’s impossble to paraphrase a poem, to translate it to another language
– to try to get at a poem’s meaning; to try to abstract the meaning of a poem from the language
in which that meaning is rooted, the paradoxical language of metaphor, is to disregard the
internal structure of the poem that gives it its meaning
Wimsatt and Beardsley “The Intentional Fallacy” & “The Affective Fallacy”
– criticism should not take into account the authorial intention in a work (intentional fallacy –
“a confusion between the poem and its origins”); it’s impossible to reduce the poem to the
intention of an author
– three evidences for the meaning of the poem: internal (discovered through the semantics and
syntax of a poem, through our habitual knowledge of a language, through dictionaries, etc.),
external (not part of a work as a linguistic fact; it consists of revelations about how or why
the poet wrote the poem), intermediate (private or semiprivate meanings attached to words
or topics by an author)
– poems belong neither to the author, nor to the critic; poem belongs to the public
– we shouldn’t think about what the poem is and what the poem does, how it influences a
reader (affective fallacy – a confusion between the poem and its results)
Based on Cleanth Brooks’ “The Heresy of Paraphrase”
Irony – crucial to New Criticism; the avoidance of sentimentality through incorporation of multiple
attitudes in a single work -> it is the resolution of these internal tensions that gives a literary work
its strength; it doesn’t have to be a logical resolution.
Poetry is based on incongruity – TENSIONS; poem works upon these tensions -> various tensions
between the different elements of a poem (irony)
Irony – the symbols which are used perversely: a child who is the best philosopher or light that
proceeds from something “shadowy”, darkness.
Irony is used to remake language; Elliot: poet’s task is to “dislocate language into meanings”.
Rationally considered, the ideal language would contain one term for each meaning, and the relation
between term and meaning would be constant. But the word, as the poet uses it, has to be conceived
of, not as a discrete particle of meaning, but as a potential of meaning, a nexus or cluster of
Ironic logic used to state the claims of an idea or attitude which we have agreed is false.
Jakobson discovered polarity in language performance that is visible in the study of aphasia -> the
difference between metaphor and metonymy
• metaphor – similarity disorder, it is based on continuity; we substitute one thing for another
(people not able to name the object but able to place them in a context, e.g. knife – pencil
sharpener; black – death);
• metonymy – contiguity disorder; we associate words that are analogical (by means of cause
and effect for instance: poverty – hut); co-proximity of words – they are frequently found
next to each other
Two oppossitions:
• positional contiguity vs. positional similarity
• semantic contiguity vs. semantic similarity
Two basic responses of the patients:
• predicative
• substitutive
• Hut is a small house -> positional contiguity, semantic similarity
• Hut – cabin -> semantic similarity, positional similarity
Hut and palace -> semantic oppossition, positional similarity
Hut and poverty -> semantic contiguity, positional similarity
Poetic function – a projection of equivalents from the axis of selection (↑), metaphor, onto the axis
of combination (→), metonymy.
Equivalents in sound, projected into the sequence as its constitutive principle, inevitably involves
semantic equivalence, and on any linguistic level, any constituent of such a sequence prompts one
of the two correlative experiences which Hopkins neatly defines as ‘comparison for likeness’ sake’
and ‘comparison for unlikeness’ sake’.
Sound equivalents:
• rhymes
• aliteration
• rhythm
Those equivalents lead us to the question of how they result in the semantic similarity between the
R.Frost “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
sound device -> similarity beetwen the words:
• phonetic similarity – ‘s’ (SELECTION)
sound equivalents -> semantic equivalents (COMBINATION)
“snow”, “see”, “woods”, etc.
selection: “snow” and “woods”
combination: part of nature
• rhymes
selection: “snow” and “know” (“know” – conscience, I; knowledge – Enlightment, light; snow –
combination: relation between nature and man
Gerard Genette – born in 1930 in Paris, a French literary theorist, associated in particular with the
structuralist movement and the narrativist turn.
Genette in his work rejects the very opossition between diegesis and mimesis (as presented in Plato)
saying that all we have is degrees of diegesis that is either narrative of events or narrative of
• narrative of events
Homeric “imitation” vs. Plato’s pure narrative
Plato – condensation through eliminating redundant information and ‘picturesque’ indicators
Homer – an abundance of functionally useless details incorporated into work in order to create the
reality effect
Still, according to Genette, the narrative of events is the transcription of the non-verbal into
the verbal; its mimesis thus will be only the illusion of mimesis! – for some it may be intensely
mimetic and for others only slightly ‘expressive’ account;
Textual mimetic factors:
– the quantity of narrative information (more developed and more detailed one)
– the absence or the minimal presence of the informer
‘Showing’ can be only a way of telling, and this way consists of both saying about it as much as one
can, and saying this ‘much’ as little as possible, making one forget that it is the narrator telling.
Two cardinal precepts of ‘showing’:
– the Jamesian dominance of scene (detailed narrative)
– the Flaubertian transparency of the narrator
MIMESIS – maximum of information and a minimum of the informer
DIEGESIS – minimum of information and maximum of the informer
Still, Genette affirms that it’s possible to combine the two, arriving at a ceratain paradox (being
mimetic and anti-mimetic at the same time), and he gives an example of Proustian narrative:
– narrative form that is most rich in information, and thus most ‘mimetic’
– narrative where the narrator’s presence is constant, and so intense as to be completely
contrary to the ‘Flaubertian’ rule
• narrative of words
absolute imitation; no narrative in fact?
Example: Proust, “Sodom and Gomorrah” -> Marcel: “It is absolutely necessary that I marry
no difference between the statement present in the text and the sentence actually spoken by the
hero; the narrator does not narrate the hero’s sentence; one can scarcely say he imitates it; he
recopies it and therefore we cannot speak of narrative here
3 states of character’s speech:
– narratized, narrated speech (Plato – reduction of speech to event); the most distant and the
most reduced -> e.g.: “I informed my mother of my decision to marry Albertine”
– transposed speech, in indirect style (a little more mimetic than narrated speech, it doesn’t
give a guarantee of literal fidelity to the words really uttered; the narrator’s presence is still
to perceptible in the very syntax of the sentence) -> e.g.: “I told my mother that I absolutely
had to marry Albertine” (free indirect speech)
– reported speech, dramatic in type (the most mimetic form, the narrator pretends literally
to give the floor to his character) -> e.g.: “I said to my mother: it is absolutely necessary that
I marry Albertine”
-> the basic form of dialogue and also of monologue first in the epic and then in the novel,
deriving from the drama; mimesis at two degrees, imitation of imitation
‘Interior monologue’, stream-of-consciousness technique, ‘immediate speech’ (James Joyce,
Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner) – pushing the mimesis of speech to its limit, obliterating the last
traces of the narrative instance and giving the floor to the character right away
immediate speech vs. free indirect speech -> in free indirect speech, the narrator takes on the
speech of the character, the character speaks through the voice of the narrator, and the two instances
are then merged; in immediate speech, the narrator is obliterated and the characted substitutes for
“The Reality Effect”
– Barthes investigates the nature of realism in modernist texts; reality is needed to enjoy the
– detail – necessary to achieve realistic effect; it’s seen as a pure encounter of an object and its
– notation = data, details -> it a narrative luxury, sth useless but at the same time useless
details are needed in texts – detailed description is needed to arrive at reality effect
– narrative is more predictable than description, and seems to be in control of events; thus,
description is not a part of the story but it’s superior – it’s more unpredictable
– eccphrasis – when one piece of art represents another piece of art (e.g. “Ode to Grecian
Urn” by Keats; for Barthes it is a useful tool for the analysis of modern texts – “a brilliant
detachable morsel [of description], suffiecient unto itself” introduced solely for the “pleasure
of verbal portraiture”
– versimilitude – to show, depict reality in a truthful way (mimesis)
– concrete reality is put in the book for intelligibility – these are insignificant gestures,
transitory attitudes, insignificant objects (the pure and simple representation of the ‘real’)
– details in texts are denotations that may turn into connotations (associations)
– realistic effect is achieved by direct collusion of the signifier and the referent; absence of the
A chief function of the reality in text is an illusion that this is true picture but yet another perception
of reality -> effect of reality is achieved through language and language can never be transparent, it
can never be only a medium!
• objects presented in a text refer to the category of reality, not reality as such
• reality is a notion, a concept in a text, a construction
• reality opposes a text, it is external to language, nonlinguistic
• details in a story have an aesthetic function, not mimetic (illusion of mimesis)
• there is no reality as such for Barthes