Thanks for your patience. I’ve been really busy and haven’t had time to finish this. Unfortunately, it’s about as slapdash as everything I’ve written previously, but I hope it makes sense.
Where were we?
Saussure describes language as a system of signs, and within that system are rules (grammar, syntax, etc.) that determine how the signs are used. The sign for Saussure consists of the signifier (the word “cat,” for example) and the signified (the concept of a four-legged, furry animal). It’s tempting to see this as just restating the “common sense” approach we discussed earlier in which humans assume that signs (words, symbols, pictures, etc.) represent something real in the world, but for Saussure, this isn’t the case. The signifier doesn’t represent anything real, so rather than seeing language as corresponding to objective reality, Saussure “brackets” off reality and focuses instead on the structure of the system of signs itself. It is the system of signs and its structure that create and organize reality.
This approach might lead us to believe that humans use the system of signs to create their own reality. The world, we might assume, is entirely a product of the individual human subject (the mind, the ego, or whatever you want to call it) and his or her language, but Saussure also brackets off the subjective. Humans don’t create meaning or reality; rather, the subject operates within a system of signs that already existed before we were born and will exist when we are dead and gone. For Saussure, the system of signs creates the individual, not the other way around. C.S. Peirce wrote, “Every mind which passes from doubt to belief must have ideas which follow after one another in time. Every mind which reasons must have ideas which not only follow after others but are caused by them. Every mind which is capable of logical criticism of its inferences, must be aware of this determination of its ideas by previous ideas” (Peirce, “On Time and Thought”, W 3:68–69); thus, what we think and how we think are predetermined by the system into which we are born. We become projections of the linguistic system instead of its creators. In short, semiotics has shifted the focus away from objective “reality” and also from subjective experience. The structure and rules of language are the focus, not how and by whom language is produced. With language firmly occupying the center of existence, everything else, the subjective and objective is “decentered.”
Thus divorced from a human component, language can be studied in isolation. The Russian Formalists and later the Prague School of literary theorists studied literature as deviation from “normal” language structures. The Russian theorist Roman Jakobson wrote of language “typology,” or classifying languages by the structures they share, not their common origins. Jakobson influenced and was influenced by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who saw culture, its mythology and practices, as also a set of structures. Whereas linguists describe “phonemes” as the basic unit of language, Levi-Strauss speaks of “mythemes” as being the basic elements by which myth and culture are structured. From Levi-Strauss emerges the structuralist movement. In 1962, Jakobson and Levi-Strauss wrote together, “In poetic works, the linguist discerns structures which are strikingly analogous to those which the analysis of myths reveals to the ethnologist. For his part, the latter must recognize that the myths do not consist in conceptual arrangements. They are also works of art.” What follows from that statement is a painstakingly detailed analysis of Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet “Les Chats.” But rather than follow traditional criticism, which focused on the images, meter, and “beauty” of a poem, the structuralist looks at dichotomies, inversions, asymmetries, and other such relationships. To give you an idea of how this works, take this sentence from Jakobson and Levi-Strauss: “As we have seen, neither the dichotomous scission of the sonnet, nor the division into three stanzas, results in equilibrium of isometric constituents.” Deprived of human meaning and context, language boils down to simple choices among structures; aesthetic appreciation of poetry gives way to a clinical dissection of the basic structures of the poem. Language is what is; everything else, including people and things, is unimportant.
Inevitably, structuralism provoked a backlash in the form of post-structuralism. Post-structuralists reject the centrality of language, or “logocentrism.” This notion comes from the description of Christ as “the Word” (logos) in the first chapter of John; whereas religion posited God as the “transcendental signifier,” or the origin and center of meaning, structuralists had grounded meaning in language. For post-structuralists, this reliance on language as inherently meaningful was naive and mistaken.
Recall again Saussure’s idea of meaning as the intersection between the choice of signs and the combination of signs. But you choose among an infinite number of signs, and a sign is preceded and followed by an infinite number of signs. So, again, meaning derives from difference; a sign means something because it isn’t all the other signs it could have been. As Saussure put it, “In the linguistic system, there are only differences.” I know, that’s confusing, but I’ll try to explain it.
Let’s take Karl Pilkington’s sentence again for an example: “You never see an old man eating a Twix.” The word “man” has been chosen out of all the possible other words it could have been (mat, map, Chicago, cup, and so on), so it has meaning because it is not those other words. In the same way, the word “man” has been placed within the sentence, so it also has meaning because it isn’t the other words in the sentence: “You, never, see, an, old, eating, a Twix” (and potentially any words that could come before or after the sentence). In this sense, then, meaning is negative because signs or words mean something only by their relationship to what they are not.
Post-structuralists argued that because meaning derives from what a word or signifier is not, the word retains traces of all the other words in the language or system. So, meaning is diffused, suspended, or as Jacques Derrida put it, “deferred.” Rather than offering a fixed or certain meaning, the signifier is ultimately empty, a negative creation. Terry Eagleton sums up the post-structuralist approach to language: “Meaning, if you like, is scattered or dispersed along the whole chain of signifiers; it cannot be easily nailed down, it is never fully present in any one sign alone, but is rather a kind of constant flickering of presence and absence…. Each sign in the chain of meaning is somehow scored over or traced through with all the others, to form a complex tissue which is never ‘pure’ or ‘fully meaningful.’ At the same time as this is happening, I can detect in each sign … traces of the other words it has excluded in order to be itself.”
Historian Michel Foucault applies this “deferred” or “negative” conception of meaning to the study of historical events. He says that we must reject the idea that “beyond any apparent beginning [of an event], there is always a secret origin – so secret and so fundamental that it can never be quite grasped in itself. Thus one is led inevitably, through the naïvety of chronologies, towards an ever-receding point that is never itself present in any history; this point is merely its own void; and from that point all beginnings can never be more than recommencements or occultation (in one and the same gesture, this and that). To this theme is connected another according to which all manifest discourse is secretly based on an ‘already-said’; and that this ‘already said’ is not merely a phrase that has already been spoken, or a text that has already been written, but a ‘never-said’, an incorporeal discourse, a voice as silent as a breath, a writing that is merely the hollow of its own mark. It is supposed therefore that everything that is formulated in discourse was already articulated in that semi-silence that precedes it, which continues to run obstinately beneath it, but which it covers and silences. The manifest discourse, therefore, is really no more than the repressive presence of what it does not say; and this ‘not-said’ is a hollow that undermines from within all that is said.”
Thus, to Foucault, you cannot point to a fundamental origin of meaning. Assigning meaning to a signifier or an event is merely the human attempt to fix a point in an infinitely wide web of signifiers that has no origin. And this point, he says, is “merely its own void,” and the signifier itself is nothing but “the hollow of its own mark.”
I’ve probably lost most of you by now, but the simple point is that post-structuralists believe that everything that is said is a choice to “repress” what is not said, but what is not said is still there and “undermines from within all that is said.” Thus, every statement undermines itself. Roland Barthes uses the example of a declaration of love to illustrate this point: to say “I love you” is to acknowledge one’s “extreme solitude.”
Meaning, then, isn’t something you can get a fix on. Like the treasures Joseph Smith used his seer stone to find, meaning is “slippery,” and every time you get close, it slips away from your grasp.
Even the notion that signifiers mean something in the context of their larger system is suspect to post-structuralists. Structuralists, as we have seen, looked at such structures as dichotomies and binary oppositions to explain how meaning is made, but post-structuralists saw these structures as undermining themselves. Deconstruction, as J. Hillis Miller states, is the attempt to find “the thread in the text in question which will unravel it all.” Some deconstructionists focus on how both halves of a dichotomy (dark/light, good/bad, etc.) undermine each other. Take a basic binary relationship such as gender. In patriarchal societies, man is defined as the opposite of woman. Man occupies his position above woman by defining woman as not-man with negative value. But at the same time, man needs woman because he defines himself against her; woman is part of man, and without woman, man cannot exist. So the dichotomy collapses on itself. Paul de Man takes deconstruction farther in demonstrating how every statement undermines itself, “as if the very possibility of assertion had been put into question.” The end of deconstruction, de Man argues, is to acknowledge “the nothingness of human matters.”
What structures there are in human life, whether myth or language, are all arbitrary and equally based in fiction. As we have seen, Michel Foucault applied this approach to history, as did Hayden White, who suggested that history itself takes on the forms of creative fiction: “Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it, he must first prefigure the field–that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception. This poetic act is indistinguishable from the linguistic act in which the field is made ready for interpretation as a domain of a particular kind.”
Similarly, Thomas Kuhn argued that science is constrained by accepted paradigms that are nothing more than human applications of structure: rather than being an open-ended search for new discovery, science is “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” And as we have seen, these conceptual boxes are linguistic and creative in nature.
The field of psychology has also applied post-structuralist thought. Jacques Lacan sees the individual person as a signifier whose identity is established only because it is not everything else around it. A child learns its identity by becoming part of the symbolic order, by learning its relationship to language. As Terry Eagleton summarizes, “Language is ‘empty’ because it is just an endless process of difference and absence: instead of being able to possess anything in its fullness, the child will now simply move from one signifier to another, along a linguistic chain which is potentially infinite…; but no object or person can ever be fully ‘present’ in this chain, because as we have seen with Derrida its effect is to divide and differentiate all identities.” So, even the “I,” the subject, is just a signifier that cannot express something “fully present.” Lacan turns Descartes’s famous statement on its head: “I am not where I think, and I think where I am not.” Even the unconscious, Lacan argues, is a projection of linguistic processes, not some primeval form of “me.”
For Louis Althusser, it is ideology that creates the individual subject. In fact, it is ideology that allows us to conceive of ourselves as individuals: “I shall therefore say that, where only a single subject (such and such individual) is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into his material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which we derive the ideas of that subject… It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.”
If you’re still reading at this point, I am grateful. What I hope has emerged is the idea that post-structuralism deeply distrusts notions of systems, structures, and truth itself. For the post-structuralists, every belief, every assertion, every action undermines itself because all are constrained by language, which, as we have seen, is elusive and self-defeating. What’s left, for many, is an arbitrary and meaningless universe in which nothing is present, nothing is real.
As Terry Eagleton puts it, “One advantage to the dogma that we are prisoners of our own discourse, unable to advance reasonably certain truth-claims because such claims are merely relative to our language, is that it allows you to drive a coach and carriage through everybody else’s beliefs while not saddling you with the inconvenience of having to adopt any yourself.” In light of this distrust of truth claims, it’s odd to hear someone suggesting that Mormonism is compatible with post-modernism. I think I’ll just close with some questions:
If all experience is constrained and undermined by language, how can we privilege any attempt to gain knowledge over any other? Why, for example, is a spiritual experience a “better” way to learn truth than a scientific experiment, or even using a divining rod?
If the subject is merely the product or projection of language and ideology, how can it know anything, much less believe itself capable of knowing anything?
If every assertion undermines and deconstructs itself, wouldn’t the statement “I know the church is true” be the ultimate acknowledgment that one knows nothing?
How do we reconcile the notion that the Spirit “speaketh things as they really are” with the idea that language is the only thing that really is?