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A problem that typically troubles the humanities is the ambiguity of primitive terms. An inquiry into their meaning is usually undertaken only after a period of time when they are used un-critically, possibly under the presumption of their complete self-evidence. This belief is hardly warranted. The boundaries of their meanings are so fuzzy that critical analysis turns into a partial reconstruction from ground-zero. That is what this essay will attempt with the notion of the sign and its extra-linguistic connotations. This essay locates this re-construction at the moment when Ferdinand de Saussure, troubled by this ambiguity of the primitive term- sign- sought to carve out the discipline of Linguistics, reformulating the existing notion of the sign.
The precise moment at which Saussure signals his disinheritance, as it were, from erstwhile linguistic traditions is where he criticizes existing analyses of language as a 'naming process'. This disinheritance of his marks the crucial juncture which sounds the birth pangs of the discipline we now conceive as linguistics and signals the heart of the present investigation. What this essay will attempt to analyze is how Saussure's conceptualization of the linguistic sign has influenced thinkers, psychoanalysts, philosophers, co-(and later) linguists. The influence has resulted in several different understandings of the linguistic sign that Saussure envisaged, the rationale(s) behind which will form the core of this discussion.
For Saussure, an understanding of the linguistic sign as a 'naming process' assumes that "ready-made ideas exist before words, it does not tell us whether a name is vocal or psychological in nature, and assumes that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation." (Saussure, Pg 65) Nevertheless, he does credit the erstwhile conceptualization of the linguistic sign as bringing him near his eventual formulation of the linguistic unit as a double entity. For him, this unit unites a concept and a sound-image. Saussure seems at pains to emphasize the non-physicality of the sound-image, emphasizing its psychological impact on human senses instead. The only sense in which the sound-image is sensory, or as Saussure calls it, "material", is when opposing it to the other term of the association- the concept. Not only does Saussure re-conceptualize the existing constituents of the linguistic unit, he refashions the very idea of the sign as it was understood in his time. Contemporaries used 'sign' to designate just a sound-image. But the profound implications of this for Saussure are evident from his comments as relayed by the diligence of his earnest, and might I add, generous students, in the Course in General Linguistics. Saussure uses the example of the tree to demonstrate this. For him, "one forgets that 'arbor' (Latin for 'tree') is called a sign only because it carries the concept 'tree'â€¦ the idea of the sensory part implies (the) idea of the whole." (Saussure, Pg 67)
It is to resolve this that Saussure says that the definition of the linguistic sign poses an important question of terminology. For him, the prevailing ambiguity could be resolved if three terms were to be chosen to designate the linguistic unit and its two components. He chose 'sign' to designate the whole. Signifier (Sr) and signified (Sd) replaced the sound-image and the concept. This was done because Sr and Sd had the advantage of simultaneously indicating a) the nature of the opposition between the concept and the sound-image and b) the manner in which the opposition allows for the constitution of the whole- the sign as the linguistic unit. A crucial disciplinary consequence of this formulation and the recognition of Sd (or the concept) as equally significant in it (as Barthes notes in his Elements of Semiology) was that for Saussure (and later, Hjelmslev) "since Sds are signs among others, semantics must then be a part of structural linguistics." (Barthes, Pg 39)
Immediately after this radical reformulation, Saussure said something that pre-empted the genesis of the present discussion. He stated that the sign is arbitrary because the "choice of the signifierâ€¦ is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it has no natural connection with the signified" (Saussure, Pg 69) Many thinkers since have maintained like Saussure that language cannot be reduced to extra-linguistic factors, whether in the nature of things or of thought, in other words, that it is arbitrary. Others, like Benveniste, argue that it is partially or totally motivated by these same factors. For Benveniste, Saussure's 'arbitrary' argument is falsified by an "unconscious recourse to a third term which was not included in the initial definition- the thing itself, the reality." (Benveniste, Pg 44) Benveniste attacks Saussure's logic and finds the contradiction inherent in Saussure's formulation. He believes that if one states like Saussure does that language is a form, not a substance, it becomes imperative to leave the substance outside the realm of the sign. However, it is only when one thinks of the animal ox in its "substantial particularity" that one is justified in considering arbitrary the relationship between 'bof' (French for 'ox') on the one hand and 'ox' on the other to the same reality. The tension that Benveniste alerts to in Saussure stems from the way Saussure defined the linguistic sign (repressing the reality/object/thing in the process) and the fundamental nature he attributed to it.
This is elaborated upon by Benveniste through a systematic refutation of Saussure's justifications for refuting objections to his (Saussure's) calling the relationship between Sr and Sd arbitrary. The first of these is the use of onomatopoeias and interjections. Saussure's refutations to these objections to the arbitrariness of the sign are predicated on the notion of conventionality and these words' similar relations (as other ordinary, non-onomatopoeic words) to the syntax of a particular grammar, and the difference in interjections (for example, French 'aie!' and English 'ouch!') across languages. Moreover, mutability and immutability of the sign are possible solely due to the arbitrary relationship between the Sr and Sd, according to Saussure. For Benveniste the arbitrary relationship is between the sign and the object, not the Sr and the Sd. He, therefore, accepts Saussure's propositions for the process of signification, not the sign.
Benveniste is equally critical of Saussure's notion of the linguistic value. For Saussure, when one 'word' can be exchanged for an idea (something that is dissimilar), but can also be compared with other words (something that is similar), the notion of linguistic value emerges. This relative value stems from the arbitrariness of the sign. For Benveniste, however, the choice that invokes a certain idea for a certain slice of sound is not at all arbitrary. In reality, Benveniste believes, "Saussure was thinking of the representation of the real object and of the unnecessary and unmotivated character of the bond which united the sign to the thing signified (emphasis mine)" (Benvensite, Pg 47) The crux of Benveniste's argument is that the sign, the primordial element of the linguistic system, includes a Sr and Sd whose bond has to be recognized as necessary. This is because linguistic values maintain themselves in a relationship of opposition which is, therefore, necessary to the structure of language as a system. What is arbitrary for Benvensite is the relationship between the Sr and the 'thing' which is signified, something Saussure consciously denied.
The description of a sign in Saussure, as the discussion on Benveniste indicates, involves only the relation between its two components, Sr and Sd, and not that between the unit resulting from their union and what it stands for or refers to in the extra-linguistic world. This tension in taking or not taking the thing from the extra-linguistic world itself into consideration when defining the sign, or as an alternative, not talking of language as pure form, has manifest itself in several subsequent philosophical and linguistic debates. C.S. Peirce's classification of signs is one such. He had used the word 'semiotic' around 1897 to designate the 'quasi-necessary, or formal, doctrine of signs' with which he had concerned himself since the 1860s. His eventual idea of signifying meaning generation as an unlimited sign-exchanging process - the idea of the unlimited semiosis questions Saussure's previous formulation, as this essay will now explore. Peirce defines the sign in the following way:
"A sign is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign, representamen, stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground." (Peirce, Pg 99)
What is pivotal here is the quality of thirdness that Peirce bestows on the sign relation. Thirdness is that quality which allows translatability. For Peirce, the only way in which the relationship between Representamen (closest to Saussure's Sr) and the idea of the Object (closest to Saussure's Sd) can be understood is if they are in a context. This is what the quality of thirdness enables (closest to Saussure's sign). It allows the possibility of interpreting the relationship between the Representamen and the idea of the Object. The Interpretant, imbued with this quality, therefore, awakens the potential of sign generation and intelligibility. Peirce's conceptualization seems to indicate that signs are not what one sees/hears but what one infers from what one sees/hears. This is the realm where the Interpretant assumes primacy and the debate on whether the sign actually refers to a name-thing relation is brought to a head.
Thirdness for Peirce is that which is general. And it is, for Peirce, real too. However, it does not exist. Making a distinction between existence and reality, this essay argues, is a first step towards understanding Peirce and his contribution to the debate Saussure unfurled. Peirce seems to believe that signs exist exclusively due to their replicas, i.e. due to concrete sounds, inscriptions etc. So conceived, signs are individual objects. Nevertheless, that way of being of a sign is derivative only from its "genuine being as a general object." That second way of being is essential for a sign. Peirce ascribes to generality the real mode of being. It constitutes the special level of being which he calls thirdness. And, nothing that belongs in thirdness can exist because "only individual things are capable of existence" (Peirce, Pg 77). Thus, each replica as a temporary individual object has to be a derivative of the genuine general sign through the context and the possibility of translatability (or, inference) that the Interpretant enables. It has no self-subsistence of its own. Physical phenomena are potential replicas of signs. However, they become signs only by entering into the triadic relation.
Aside from pre-empting Lacan's argument of material reality being rendered meaningful through the use of a linguistic sign, what this triadic relationship establishes for us is a multiplicity of signs- the unlimited semiosis. As the essay has just argued, the Interpretant constitutes the third indispensable element of the triadic relation. Nevertheless, the Interpretant is a sign in itself and needs at least one more sign as its own Interpretant, and so ad infinitum. This multiplicity of signs is for Peirce logically prior to a single sign. The system creates the necessary condition for any particular sign. However, Peirce, fully aware of this self-creative power of the universe of signs, does bring in some limitations on it. The trichotomy of icon, index and symbol allows the universe of signs to be dependent upon the empirical world of things. This is where the referential aspect of the sign enters into our present discussion explaining the troubling 'presence' of things in an understanding of sign.
The icon is a sign determined by its object by virtue of its own internal nature (a quality) and is hence, immediately intelligible. Peirce's idea of the qualisign comes closest to this idea of the icon. The index is a sign by virtue of a relation of co-presence it shares with the object, an existential relationship with the object, as it were. It signifies in virtue of a relationship of metonymic contiguity with its referent. The obvious counterpart for the index is the sinsign. But it can come to have an existential relationship only through its qualities. So, an index involves a qualisign or several qualisigns. The symbol is a sign by virtue of its conventional mediating abilities (as in Saussure's sign, in fact). While conventionality indicates the legisign properties of the symbol, it must also be kept in mind that every legisign signifies through an instance of its application- through a replica of it. The notion of the replica with its substitutional properties comes very close to the functioning of a metaphor. The replica is a sinsign. So, every legisign requires sinsigns only after the law/convention renders it so. Furthermore, all linguistic types (legisigns) are more general in nature, while their tokens (replicas) are more specific, occurring in specific contexts. (Peirce, Pg 102) For Peirce, every algebraic equation is an icon, in so far as it exhibits, by means of the algebraic signs (which are not themselves icons), the relations of the quantities concerned. Any material image, as a painting, is largely conventional in its mode of representation. In itself, without a legend or label, Peirce calls it a hypo-icon. Images are those hypo-icons which partake of first firstness or simple quality. (Peirce, Pg 105) What is amply evident from Peirce's deliberations is that the representational character of signs can be, and often is, mixed or heterogeneous. He emphasizes the overlapping and flexibility of the sign categories in signifying practices- every sign is an icon, an index and a symbol in the contexts which enable their iconic, indexical and symbolic aspects to manifest themselves. What also emerges is an aspect of language- signs not only signify but refer; they have a referential function, which at its simplest has traditionally been considered as a naming relation with things. This relationship of reference is what Barthes calls denotation, and its correlate connotation.
Barthes provides an analytical system to discuss the reading/interpretation of the image which for Peirce is an icon at most times- immediately intelligible without codes. Some of the questions Barthes explores are- If the image re-presents like Peirce says it does, can it shape meaning? And how does meaning get into the image? It is here that a Lacanian understanding of the Sr and Sd relationship within the sign will not be out of order in understanding Barthes' 'image' as a complex sign. The crucial break that Lacan announces from Saussure's formulation of the signification process is his focus on the bar separating the Sr and the Sd. Lacan introduced a new emphasis on the bar as a formula of separateness rather than of Saussurean reciprocity. This move of Lacan calls into question any theory of correspondence between words and things, thereby paradoxically serving to strengthen Saussure's arguments. Lacan uses the 'Restroom example' to demonstrate his central hypothesis- "we fail to pursue the question of meaning as long as we stick to the illusion that the Sr answers to the function of re-presenting the Sd". (Lacan, Pg 150)An exploration of the example will reveal that meaning that insists in the signifying chain is itself attributed to the Sd. This only happens after the meaning is inscribed in the Sd. The inscription (Sr of 'Ladies' or 'Gentlemen') constitutes the Sd as such by enabling a disjunction- by making material reality differ from itself to the children on the train. The restroom doors, it ought to be remembered, are identical on all accounts until a Sr, 'Gentlemen' or 'Ladies', enters into its material constitution to make it what it is. This is how meaning enters into the image, for Lacan. The possibility of this meaning entering in to differentiate otherwise analogous material reality lies, for Lacan, in the movement of language along a chain of Srs.
Thus, with the sliding of Sd under the Sr, the stress as hinted at earlier in Lacan is on the bar separating the Sr and the Sd; and of the Sr outrunning the Sd in its meaning generating potential. As if to diagrammatically show the primacy of the Sr over the Sd, Lacan uses S for Sr and s for the Sd. His eventual "topography of the unconscious" is thus: S/s.
It is here that Saussure's distinction between langue (code) and parole (message) will be used to complement Lacan's arguments for the signifying possibilities of the image, and the two theoretical positions will then be used in evaluating Barthes' conceptualization of the photographic message (seemingly a 'message without a code'). A linguistic code is a set of prefabricated conventional possibilities which the speaker uses to communicate with an addressee: i.e. to create messages. It is in the nature of language that there is a dialectical tension, as Saussure points out and as Barthes elaborates, between code (langue) and message (parole), where the code only exists because of its ability to create messages. This message is only understood because of its relation to a given code. A message is a singular, meaningful unit of discourse. A code is an abstraction created by the analyst-a logic reconstructed from the materials provided by the message. Living in a certain environment we internalize sets of codes that affect our semiotic behavior.
Drawing / painting is always coded because it requires a set of rule-governed transpositions that are historical (perspectives, rules, etc). Drawing requires apprenticeship, learning. Drawing, hence, is a culture of a culture, according to Barthes. He agrees with Peirce in as much as he considers it a re-presentation. However, Barthes claimed that there is only one 'seeming' exception to the rule "no message without a code": the photographic image, because it shows us something reproduced without human intervention (by means of a mechanical-chemical process) as if certain aspects of nature were being communicated through a photographic message without any loss. "The relationship of signifieds to signifiers is not one of transformation but of 'recording', and the absence of a code clearly reinforces the myth of photographic 'naturalness'. The mechanical is here a guarantee of objectivity." (Barthes, Pg 44) The photographic message, for Barthes, is then a sign which can be a very complex structure that mixes forms (code) and materials (message) of representation. While Peirce would say that a photograph as an icon would be immediately intelligible without codes, Barthes' emphasis is on the illusion of reality that a photograph seemingly perpetrates, the "photographic paradox", as it were.
An example to substantiate Barthes' argument is in order. The essay will use an Indian 'Wills Navy Cut' (year, 2001) print advertisement to locate the formal organisation of texts and images in terms of the active comprehension of texts and images in context. This is the context that the idea of an advertisement enables.
Barthes clarifies the denotation of the photograph thus- "Certainly the image is not the reality but at least it is its perfect analogon and it is exactly this analogical perfection which, to common sense, defines the photograph" (Barthes, Pg 14). The photograph, for him, is a "mechanical analogon" whose message is the scene itself, literal reality. In the image above, the very point of advertising cigarettes is to sell them. The main obstacle to selling cigarettes is consumers' beliefs that cigarettes ruin their health. The most relevant thing a cigarette advertiser can do, then, is to attempt to modify, eliminate, or repress that belief through suggestions. The linguistic caption with overtones of a sustaining reciprocity (between the cigarettes and the buyer at one level) - "Made for each other"- signals this suggestion. According to Barthes, there are two kinds of relationships between text and image: anchorage and relay. The caption "Made for each other" in elaborate font anchors the meaning of the image by calling forth the intended meanings of "mutual sustenance". On the level of denotation, the linguistic message roots interpretation. It ensures that the message is not missed. The label, "Wills Navy Cut", provides another substance to the overall linguistic message. What is signified through the signifier of a coat of arms that accompanies the label is a sense of 'royalty', positing the act of buying "Wills Navy Cut" cigarettes in the realm of privilege.
In relay, the text and the image are in a complementary, syntagmatic relationship. Here, the text provides meaning not found in the image. This works at the level of a psychological arm-twist, with the company more or less dictating the kind of residual impression an audience will take away from the advertisement. "Both the words and images are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized on a higher level." (Barthes, Pg 41) The image merely reinforces the caption, and the message is loud and clear- committing the reader or viewer to acceptance of the relation of reciprocity ("made for each other") communicated.
The image, for Barthes, is a series of discontinuous signs. It is possible to read the image (as Barthes does), to understand that it collects in a certain space (the print ad) certain identifiable objects (a couple joyous at the prospect of a sumptuous and, importantly, healthy, meal). The coded iconic message that one takes away is joy, health, domesticity and vitality. The background colour- green- rich with its organic and natural overtones continues with the by-now advanced act of 'sheltering reality'. This profusion of images is 'set' in a syntagm which is that of the denotation.
The juxtaposition of the white plate with fruits with a cigarette packet is interesting. It is as if the essence of the fruits- vitality, naturalness, health- is intended to get displaced onto the cigarette packet with the well-known physiological dangers associated with it. The metonymic contiguity of the two sets of images therefore cannot be missed. It naturalizes the symbolic message, "innocenting the semantic artifice of connotationâ€¦It seems to found in nature the signs of culture". (Barthes, Pg 42) The print ad's placement within a magazine or billboard provides the contextual information, the semantic artifice, for the coded iconic message to take shape. The "photographic paradox", according to Barthes, lies in the spectator's fascination with "the here-now, for the photograph is never experienced as an illusion ... its reality [is] that of the having been there, for in every photograph there is always the stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered" (Barthes, Pg 41). The danger of cigarette smoking is the eventual "reality that gets sheltered" through the dual nature of the process- displacement of meaning (through metonymy) from the organic aspects to the overtly cultural aspects in the syntagm of denotators, and the metaphoric connotations of joy, health, organicity, vitality and reciprocity that the range of connotators (both linguistic and imagist) reinforce.
It should be stressed that however 'obvious' an advertisement may seem, there is always an inference to be made from the cue provided that something does indeed fill an advertising slot. What I want to stress is the minimal knowledge about advertising which the non-coded iconic message conveys. The denoted image of the cigarette pack with a couple of cigarettes jutting out of it, therefore, plays a special role in the general structure of the iconic message. This message is that no matter what the symbolic connotations hinted at are, the products that are being marketed are cigarettes. "It is a literal message as opposed to the previous symbolic ones. But it functions as the support of the symbolic messages." (Barthes, Pg 39)
Of particular significance here is the denotation- a statutory warning relegated and literally sidelined- "Cigarette smoking is injurious to health". Denotation is the "literal or obvious meaning" or the "first-order signifying system". This signifies the pressure on cigarette companies to seem socially responsible. The meaning garnered from this warning is the signified of a veneer of social responsibility that the company has to don and secondly, the pragmatic aim to not highlight something that is evidently counter-productive to the purpose of selling cigarettes. Peirce would call this a legisign in as much as it is a convention hinted at- that of self-interest in sidelining the warning combined with the legal bindings on the company to include a statutory warning on its print advertisement. What results is the functioning of the advertisement within a larger moral universe dictated by conventionality and repression. The "special metalanguage" of the print advertisement therefore unleashes the signifieds of connotation- the domain of ideology, for Barthes.
Connotation refers to "second-order signifying systems." The principal function of connotation being ideological, the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image towards a meaning chosen in advance (persuading the buyer through the rhetoric of the photographic message to believe in the reciprocity hinted at through the text and the image, while conveniently sidelining the dangers of smoking). This is why an advertisement has been chosen to substantiate Barthes' arguments. An advertisement functions in the realm of persuading an audience through suggestions. Suggestion is the process of communication resulting in the acceptance with conviction of the communicated message in the absence of logically adequate grounds for its acceptance. This is why ideology belongs in the realm of connotation. The suggestibility of the advertisement (the sidelining of a statutory warning reinforces the 'seeming absence' of otherwise known physiological grounds for not buying cigarettes, leaving the audience to acceptance of the company's suggestion and buying them) and its persuasive aspects (the rhetoric of the several images in the specific advertisement) have been hence highlighted. According to Barthes, "ideology consists of the deployment of signifiers for the purpose of expressing and justifying the dominant values of a given society, class or historical period (the signs express not just "themselves", but also all kind of value systems that surround them)", (Barthes, Pg 46) Rhetoric thus appears as this signifying aspect of ideology.
The crux of Barthes' assertions seem to be that a photographic message ends up being extremely coded though initially one might conceptualize it as a "message without a code". "The image is penetrated through and through by the system of meaning, and the variability of readings (range of connotators), therefore, is no threat to the 'language' of the image" (Barthes, Pg 44) This calls for an obvious recapitulation of Lacan's restroom example where meaning comes to reside in the enamel doors only when the Srs (inscriptions) intrude the doors' material reality (apparently without any distinguishing codes prior to this linguistic intrusion). The image (in Barthes), much like the substantial materiality of doors (in Lacan), is rendered meaningful through language.
What the essay has thus sought to demonstrate in all theorists considered is that the linguistic system as a whole is not a representation of some extra-linguistic reality. What has also been shown is that there is one aspect of language that is representational, that is referential. This has to be located within the larger debate that Saussure sparked when he said that "Language is a system of signs that expresses ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etcâ€¦ I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, 'sign'). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern themâ€¦ Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics". (Introduction to Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, Pg XIV)
Moreover, according to Saussure, the use of language has two dimensions which are activated simultaneously. When forming a sentence we make choices from existing paradigms (lists of alternatives, such as words or grammatical forms) and arrange them in syntagmatic relationships (word after word, etc.). There are rules that govern both. A sign's value is determined by its paradigmatic and syntagmatic associations. As the essay has striven to demonstrate through the advertisement considered, this principle can be extended to all kinds of sign systems, such as fashion (dressing up, we choose the clothes from different alternatives and create a "syntagm", the combination of the clothes we wear). Hence, for Barthes, "every semiological system has its linguistic admixture". He inverts Saussure's dictum saying instead that "semiology is a part of linguistics". (Barthes, Introduction to Elements of Semiology, Pg 11)
The problem then lies not in seeing objects as necessarily semiotic and extralinguistic facts, but, as the essay has shown, rather in assuming that these objects also have a linguistic facet in the sense that the Sr in the linguistic system either stands for them or the Sr points to them. The reason why we believe that in ordinary discourse language represents reality is because the linguistic world is so powerful a force for us and the linguistic world seems so 'natural' to us, that we assume that it must mirror some sort of non-cultural or non-linguistic reality. Because of the links between language and reality that Peirce, Lacan and Barthes alert us to, and because language seems for certain nouns to be simply nomenclature (a set of names for phenomena existing in other semiotic systems), the assumption that becomes rife is that all linguistic phenomena correlate with some sort of substantial reality. But as Lacan tells us, in such cases the 'object' is created by the word: the object exists and is differentiated from other objects because the word exists and not the other way around. Referents in the framework of this argument exist because they are creations of the linguistic system, a way of 'linguisticizing' our entire semiotic experience- as both Saussure and Barthes envisaged in their divergent ways. The sense of a word, within this paradigm, is derived exclusively from its relationship with other words and does not predicate anything about the extra-linguistic world. The linguistic sign, then, is an intrinsically linguistic combination of a linguistically created Sr and Sd; not a word and a thing.