Are Barthes and Saussure Alike in Some Aspects of Theory?

In The Structural Activity Barthes tries to explain the word Structuralism. Structuralism is seen as a mode of thought that “refers to the linguistic model that was originated by Saussure’s theory that deals with economics, linguistics, and the science of structure.” Not only is structuralism complex and has many different working parts but it also involves a second part that includes history, and the immobilization of time. When I think of the second part to the definition of structuralism I think of the historical time period in which you are analyzing a text. The historical aspects play a role in analyzing the text because the text has historical references in it. The more modern structuralism is noted to be during Marxism. I found this interesting because Marxist theory deals with the political, social and economic policies that Karl Marx was questioning during the 18th century. His theories questioned religion in regards to scientific facts. Structuralism cannot be put into one solitary category such as Marxism but it has a series of concepts and cannot be associated with only one school or movement such as Marxism. Marxism is only one way we can see structuralism play out in theory. Structuralism is broken down in order for one to understand the goals of structuralism which is known as the structuralism activity. What exactly does this mean? Well Barthes explains that a structuralism activity involves dissection and articulation. These two terms used to show a change an actual meaning in a text. The actual meaning of the text can be interpreted as an allegorical meaning that is hidden in the text that reveals more than just its elements. Like Saussures theory of linguistics both theorists try to find the allegorical meaning of a text through the historical aspects by looking further into the text by breaking it down into different parts. When Barthes tries to explain how the dissection operation part works in structuralism he states that “The dissection operation thus produces an initial dispersed state of the simulacrum, but the units of the structure are not all anarchic before being distributed and fixed in the continually of the composition, each one forms with its own virtual group or reservoir an intelligent organism, subject to a sovereign motor principle: that of the least difference.” What I thought the dissection process referred to as when one tries to come up with the image of structure in a text it is not controlled or has any rules or principles in the way that it is supposed to be broken down into. Each part that is being dissected is formed in its own group that has a certain principle that has more similarities than differences. The question that I have is whether or not this dissection is within one text or a medium or several texts that are being analyzed in reference to one another? If the structuralism activity does in fact involve several texts that are being viewed and analyzed for their allegorical meanings that have a connection this reminds me of Saussure’s theory that involves looking at several texts elements/themes throughout history that have the same myths. The difference is that Barthes has a method for analyzing the text in a way that not only focuses on a historical aspect of a text but also its different themes and ideas. The second part to the structuralism activity involves the articulation. The way in which the linguistics aspects of a texts forms meaning. This also reminds me of Saussure’s theory because he was very much involved with analyzing how language and words are thought of and produced. Barthes is concerned with the meanings of certain words and the historical and contingent variables of the words. The difference between Barthes and Saussure is that Barthes is interested in the fabrication of meaning in a text than the meaning of a word itself. Barthes also believes that a text is a work and that the work itself has one identity. So does this mean that the work is not looked at an analyzed with several other works? This is where Barthes and Saussure are very much different in terms of their theories.

Nature of Linguistic Sign

Nature of Linguistic Sign by David Ritcher explores Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories. What I noticed from the text was that language plays a huge role in identifying the different theories. The sign, the signified and, the signified concept deals with language and naming process of how things,places,people,etc. get their names. This conception that linking a name and a thing is simple is broken down and is argued to be a false assumption. Naming things is a difficult process especially because there are different languages that come up with names for different things that may or may not have a similar resemblance from one another.Along with language are linguistic signs. A  linguistic sign unites a concept and a sound-image together.But what happens when we use sign language or mouth words without actually saying them? Would they be considered to be part of the linguistic sign that unites sound-image? The idea that we observe our own speech is interesting. When one mouths a word they are not speaking but how does another person understand the person mouthing words? It is through sound-words that we understand mouthed words. By exploring different forms or languages and dialect there is a comparison between how the expressions of one language differs from one language to the next. Language is also referred to as a system of interdependent terms that have a value in presence of other terms. A value can be seen as the significance and importance of one term in comparison to another. An example that was mentioned in the text was the word sun. One naturally thinks visually about the word sun and the words associated with sun. These are natural thoughts when one thinks of certain words that have value and one uses references of other words because it is a natural thought that comes across one’s mind. A quote that I found interesting about language was… “In language there are only differences but they are not known to not be positive”. Language is not known before the linguistic system meaning that language must be studied and analysed in order for it to be understood, it is conceptual and phonetic differences have issues from the system. I believe that the phonetic differences that create issues of this idea are onomatopoeic words, sign language, and mouthing words without actually saying them.

Is There At Least One Circumstance Where the Nature of the Sign is not Arbitrary?

It looks as if we are going deeper into a topic that I find frustrating and not entirely convincing.  This is specifically addressed by Principle I:  The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign.  In this section Saussure insists that “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.”  He makes claims like “The idea of ‘sister’ is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of sounds… that it could be represented equally by just any other sequence is proved by differences among languages any by the very existence of different languages…”  Saussure basically states this idea as a fact, briefly explains it, clarifies some key terms, glosses over two potential objections, and leaves it at that.  I understand that this paper is meant to address a larger topic than this issue, but his treatment of it leaves me dissatisfied and unconvinced.  If we can find one word whose relation to the entity it represents is not completely arbitrary his absolutist stance would have to be ammended.  I feel it is generally understood that things can be expressed by sound.  For this reason, even instrumental music can trigger an emotional response.  I can’t imagine misunderstanding a dog’s growl… These are just sounds but they carry expression.  There is also the way people say things that carries an expression.  Even people who do not understand a language can get a feel for a general meaning through the sounds and the way a word is said.  Now it could be argued that you can say any word in a threatening tone, but surely the pronounciation of some words are better suited for aggressive pronounciation.  This is why we have a whole grouping of “4 letter words” whose sharp terse pronunciations are well suited for aggressive utterance.  Why is it that among those 4 letter words there isn’t a word like “lovely” or “wonderful?”  If all language is arbitrary why are there so many similarities?  I think that anyone who writes poetry could tell you that certain words and their pronunciation do have an effect in and of themselves.  How about this:  Imagine there was a “4 letter word” that was made up arbitrarily and was meant to be vulgar, and there were other’s made up that were not of the same form, something like singdelala.  Now over the years people found much more satisfaction in violently exclaiming the 4 letter word.  singdelala did not provide the same release.  These people then wanted some more words that they could violently exclaim, and so they made up some new ones based on the structure of their beloved 4 letter word.  I do not think it is right to say that this new word was made arbitrarily.  I think it is reasonable to believe that throughout the course of the development of language, situations like this have occurred.  While I understand the effect of the linguistic sign being arbitrary, I do not think that it is necessarily the case.

Sign Language

I will freely admit that I found the Saussure essay “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” very dense and difficult to follow.  The part I feel I’ve grasped is what we discussed in class (and read about in Culler) is Saussure’s proposition that the “linguistic sign is arbitrary” (843).  In other words, it doesn’t matter if we call the thing with pointy ears and fur a “cat” or a “crocodile”, the relation of the sign to the thing signified is a product of repetition, culture, and practice, not something intrinsic in the relationship of the object and the word.

Saussure makes a point of showing how this is true across languages (he mentions Latin, Greek, French, English, German, and Russian in this essay) but he does not mention sign language.  I have currently been dabbling in learning a little sign language, both because I’ve read that it’s a useful tool to communicate with pre-verbal infants and because my babysitter is profoundly deaf and has been since birth.  Unlike spoken language, I would argue that American Sign Language (ASL), which uses gestures instead of phonemes or sound-images, does use signs that are not arbitrary in nature but in fact have a direct relationship to the thing being signified.

Take, for example, the sign for “eat” (which is also almost identical to the sign for “food”):


I would not call this an arbitrary sign– it mimics pretty directly the action of eating, and subsequently implies that there is food present as well.  Not all ASL signs are so obvious, of course, and many are just as arbitrary as “cat” or “crocodile”.  But enough signs mimic actions or nouns in order that with some helpful context, I can generally understand my babysitter and communicate back to her using my limited knowledge and signs I invent on the spot.  It’s also been interesting to me to observe my babysitter’s relationship with language in general.  When I hired her, I figured it would be very easy to communicate via text (I’ll use this moment to apologize for checking my phone in class!) but her texting habits are as visual as the way she communicates in person.  While I know she is literate, and definitely understands what I write to her, she is more likely to answer me with a photograph of what is going on (most memorably my daughter’s full diaper) then she is of writing out a complete sentence.