This is the fifth in a series of notes to fifteen lectures for my class Communication and Culture.

Required Reading:

Transition notes
Ruth Benedict left us with a set of problems that appear to concern above all the theory of culture but are also central to all theories of communication. She obliges us to think about:
  • systematicity
  • the production of difference
  • the transformation of items of behavior when they are placed in a new context.

  • Langue?

    1. Who was Saussure? goto
    2. The major issues: meaning and its mediagoto
    3. The social in languagegoto
    4. Meaninggoto
    5. System and History

    In general

    1. One cannot be concerned with communication long without having to confront language, that is
      1. the fact that human beings are not born with any particular language and will not develop any by their individual selves;
      2. the fact that all human beings talk as long as they spend some time in their early lives with some people where they can share a physical medium (oral for most, visual for those who cannot hear but are responded to through signing);
      3. that they end up talking different, mutually unintelligible languages
      4. that they can however make each other intelligible through various forms of "learning" or "translation".
    2. Language is also
      1. an ultimate metaphor for humanity ("In the beginning was the Word") 
      2. one of the most obvious instance of human cultural activity;
        1. thus a privilege place to explore what happens when human beings build lives together.
    3. Thus our brief tour of various approaches to language as it is spoken to perform various actions and with various consequences.

    1. The ongoing critique
      1. not interested in the speaking person either as this was the case for
        1. Sapir/Whorf
        2. Hymes
        3. Geertz and his students and their students as they focus on "identity."
      2. not interested in conversation
        1. in the original pragmatist version (Peirce on the interpretant
        2. in the conversational analytic mode
      3. not interested in power
        1. linguistic hegemony
      4. what is left aside that is central to Saussure
        1. historical drift and the non re-production of the arbitrary
        2. the constitution of the properties of the field that may affect the speaking person (and thus a better return to personality/character/identity)
        3. the expression of the 'I' (see Merleau-Ponty on the "prose of the world" [1973 [1969])
    2. Who was Saussure (1857-1913)?

      Saussure is such an important figure that some of argued that he was a more powerful influence than Freud in the 20th century

      1. From philology (description, ethnography, etc.) to
      2. a theory of language (Jakobson, etc.) then expanded into
      3. a theory of culture (Lévi-Strauss and structuralism),
      4. and a philosophy (Derrida and deconstructionism).
    3. Four classical major issues

      Saussure is given credit for first systematizing in such a way that it transformed much of Western philosophy:

      1. langue/parole: the social and the personal in language (p. 7-17)
      2. signifiant/signifié: the arbitrary nature of the sign (p. 67-69). It is made up an artifact, that is a product of artistic processes.
      3. the relative freedom of individuals within the langue that is "imposed" on them.
      4. synchrony/diachrony: language as system and history
        1. synchrony, syntagms, and the temporal aspects of systematization
        2. history and the evolution of symbolic systems through internal drifts, borrowings, invasions and other population movements, etc.
    4. The social in language
      1. that which individual speakers do not control, which they find all made up when they grow up or move into the geographical space dominated by any group (p. 14):
        1. phonology
        2. morphology
        3. syntax
        4. vocabulary
        5. discourse structures (genres, and the specialized forms associated with various settings, roles, genders, etc.)
      2. what then is the place of the individual speaker, at the time of his speaking?
        1. determination vs. control or hegemony?
        2. internalization vs. initial conditions (material to be used)?
        3. continuing negotiations with co-speakers vs. systemic reconstructions?
    5. Meaning
      1. The arbitrariness of the sign. It is unmotivated (p. 68-69) and thus another evidence of the social (cultural, imagined, constructed) nature of language. By implication this opens the way
        1. to an emphasis on history (Saussure as historian).
        2. to the current interest in hegemony (p. 71).
        3. but must be severely challenged by an attention to the pragmatist tradition of critiques, starting with G.H.Mead's and continuing in the work of Malinowski and some conversational analysts.
    6. System and History
      1. There is every evidence that, in any present, linguistic forms show a tendency to regularize around particular patterns (in the sense Benedict talked of configurations)
      2. There is exactly as much evidence that language (i.e. the patterns made as various parts get to fit with each other) continually change (p. 92)
        1. While Saussure lays down observations and does not specifically address the processes involved in regularization and evolution (we will have to wait until the insights of people like Bakhtin get incorporated), it remains that we must pay attention to both.
        2. It should also be noted that there is NO evidence for truly "creative" processes in language. Initial conditions, and historical happenstance, are always constraining on drift, evolution, and transformation and "change." This can be linked to classic accounts:
          1. Marx on the production of the means of human survival and its evolution,
          2. Lévi-Strauss on bricolage,
          3. the Boasians and post-moderns on diffusion and borrowing.
    7. And now, for fun, "Ima say suttin"
      1. More on arbitrariness
    Some questions (in the context of this course)
    • How might one relate Benedict writing about "configurations" into Saussure writing about "langue"?
    • Relate Fiske's notion of the "producerly" text to Saussure's discussion of "arbitrariness."
    • What might a Saussurian theory of the self look like?
    • What might a pragmatist theory of language look like?