Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Signifier and the Signified

"The bond between the signifier and the signified is radically arbitrary" Page 35

Structuralism, especially the brand that Sausserre promotes, suggests that the language we use to describe ourselves and the natural world is completely and utterly without logic or base. My first thought upon hearing this suggestion was frustration. Immediately I mentally protested, thinking of all our complex linguistic systems--Latin and Greek roots, systems of grammar and syntax. But then the realization dawned on me--Just because something is perceived as a system does not make it any less arbitrary. We've constructed these absurdly specific rules to follow when we speak and write, but they just don't have any rhyme or reason.
This proposition becomes a lot clearer when we take concrete examples into consideration. My favorite is the use of the word "tree". Saussere calls our words and ideas "signifiers" and separates this concept from the actual object and deems that "signified". He complicates things farther when he makes the bold assertion that there is no real correlation between these two. Just because we use the word tree to describe the tall, leafy structure outside our windows does legitimize the usage of the word. Nothing about the letters t-r-e-e speaks of the essence of that which it describes. We have somehow consented, through social contract, to acknowledge these relationships and perpetuate their significance.
Such an assertion warps our perception of reality and art, but Post-structuralism challenges us to take this idea further. Post-Structuralist admit that Saussere's idea are in fact true, but that this implies an even greater subjectivity. They claim that the arbitrary nature of signifiers also means literature is devoid of meaning.
While it may be radical, Post-structuralism seems like the logical conclusion of Structuralist theory. I might not agree with this particular school of thought, Post-Structuralism is a great aid in in understanding its predecessor. Certainly, though, it leaves a lot to ponder.


Hiravda said...

You said at the very end of your post that this theory left you with a lot to ponder after reading a text. I'm not sure if you meant that in a good way or bad, but i consider it a good thing. With the text giving us to much to thing about it really brings up "the birth of the reader" as this chapter has begun to talk about.

Kate said...

I meant it as a good thing. Not only are these questions excellent challenges to art and literature, they're also a perplexing and fascinating way to challenge our perceptions of reality.

City Slicker said...

I have to be honest that I too was confused after hearing that "the bond between signifier and signified is radically arbitrary". I wondered how it was possible that all of the words we use to express our ideas each and everyday could in many ways be meaningless as they were only representative of an "agreed upon social contract which acknowledged their relationship" to the thing they were describing. However after reading Saussure's argument am have become a believer that language is in fact arbitrary and as you say a tree is only a tree because it describes the "tall, leafy structure outside our windows". However, "nothing about the t-r-e-e speaks of the essence of that which it describes". Additionally, I enjoyed the connection you made to post-structuralism noting how it complicates and destabilizes the relationship between signifier and signified. Truly radical ideas!