THE EVOLUTION OF
FRENCH LINGUISTICS AFTER THE WAR:
A. J. GREIMAS'S CONVERSION TO 'SAUSSURISM'
Thomas F. BRODEN
Purdue University, USA
I. Beginning: University studies, dissertation, Matoresian lexicology
II. Evolutions and revolutions
III. "L'Actualité du saussurisme" (1956)
III.2. Greimas's "Saussurism"
III.3. Extensions of Saussurism
IV.1. Topical issues
IV.2. Totalities, change, and heterogeneity
IV.3. Subsequent research
ABSTRACT: After early training in
French philology and research in lexicology, A. J. Greimas
conceived a project in structural historical linguistics.
Articulated in the fifties, the endeavor represents an
intermediate stage between his first scholarship and the
structural semantics he was to develop in the sixties, and
appeared at the same time as the great debates that were
to transform linguistics and the human sciences. The
linguistic program strives to meld the competing
historical and structural paradigms, but also to steer the
sciences of language toward semantics, sociolinguistics,
and lexicology. The approach envisioned takes its place
within a vast transdisciplinary methodology that draws
from structuralism, is focused on the social, and calls
for a semiology of the fine arts.
The body of this text examines the article "L'actualité du saussurisme" ('The Contemporaneity of Saussurism', Greimas 1956), and is part of a book in progress on the evolution of A. J. Greimas's methodology and the development of semiotics in France. This electronic version eliminates footnotes, which generally supply references rather than extend substantive discussions.
Cette évolution, qui l'a amené des positions de l'historicisme caractérisé au structuralisme de plus en plus prononcé [...] est le lot de presque tous les linguistes français de cette génération : ayant reçu une formation traditionnelle, nous avions à céder petit à petit devant les exigences des nouvelles méthodes, à refaire tout seuls notre propre éducation.
A. J. Greimas
I personally discovered Hjelmslev only rather late, but I was literally seduced by him [...] I consider the Prolegomena the most beautiful linguistic text I have ever read.
A. J. Greimas
I. Beginning: University studies, dissertation, Matoresian lexicology
Trained in French philology by Antonin Duraffour at the Université de Grenoble, in 1948 A. J. Greimas defended a thèse d'Etat in historical lexicology at the Sorbonne. Including in its purview over 3,000 words gleaned mainly from high-brow fashion magazines of the period, La mode en 1830 describes the vocabulary of sartorial fashion in Restoration France. The only monograph written by Greimas before his Sémantique structurale, this veritable encyclopedic dictionary of fashion presented in discursive prose supplies detailed accounts of elegant attire, analyzes the descriptive and evaluative vocabulary used to describe it, and discusses the economic, social, and esthetic phenomena that exert a dominant influence on the arena (i.e., Romanticism, anglomania, industrial revolution). The study represents a crucial intellectual link between historical lexicography and Roland Barthes's Le système de la mode. The Presses Universitaires de France have the project to bring out this year the first edition of La mode en 1830, fifty years after its defense, as the major text in a volume of early work by the Lithuanian-born linguist.
After his dissertation, Greimas continued his quest for new methods in lexicology which, while enhancing the data on the history of words, would also make it possible to study the vocabulary of a given cultural moment as a synthetic whole, and to identify its semantic and lexical architectures. He collaborated closely with Georges Matoré, whom he had met while writing his thesis, and whose ideas for a lexicology allied to the history of French civilization had already had a great influence on the fashion study. The two co-authored a manifesto, "La méthode en lexicologie" (1948, 1950), which attacks the status quo in the field and sketches alternative perspectives and procedures. Extensive projects in basic historical lexicography would work through mountains of books and documents of varied types from the past in order to develop better raw information on the history of vocabulary. At the same time, scholars would undertake broader interpretative studies informed by principles of Gestalt theory and inspired by the work of the Annales school, by Henri Berr's notions of synthesis in history, and by research in sociology and ethnography. The ambitious enterprise called for an active scholarly collaboration across disciplinary frontiers, and was successful in attracting a number of lexicologists of the day, including Bernard Quemada.
Matoré and Greimas began researching a lexicological monograph on art, the word and the notion, but were able to publish only an article from the project. Greimas attempted a systematic description of the technical vocabulary of painting and color as found in articles in Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie, but after two years, abandoned the task as unworkable. He thereupon distanced himself from the approach without having produced any major work under its aegis, and took an increased interest in other new methodologies of the day.
Starting in the mid-fifties, Greimas developed a research project as broad and as challenging as the earlier lexicology, and with a similar transdisciplinary thrust, but which adopted key theoretical postulates and methodological procedures from the Prague and Copenhagen schools. Aiming to overcome the schism that divided linguists (as well as other scholars) of the period, the approach called for structuralists to recognize history as a reality essential to language, and for historical linguists to accept the effectiveness of structural methods. Greimas argued for "L'actualité du saussurisme" ('The Contemporaneity of Saussurism'), the title of a major article he published in 1956, even as he drew selectively from its key concepts, questioned others, and offers rather idiosyncratic representations of some of its positions and directions. At times, the movement of his thought opened up questions on the very points it seemed to accept as given. There is no extensive study which develops these ideas for a structural historical linguistics, but the founding epistemological principles are formulated in a handful of articles, especially in "L'actualité du saussurisme."
Never republished, this essay outlines the
themes and strategies which would blossom in structuralism,
semiology, and semiotics in France, and remains an intriguing
document for the history of linguistics and for the human
sciences (and is also included in the above-mentioned PUF
edition project). The rest of this essay delineates and
discusses the article's main positions, then examines a number
of problematics it raises. A brief conclusion observes a
number of important contrasts between the approach envisioned
and the research that Greimas actually produced in following
II. Evolutions and revolutions
As the first epitaph above suggests, Greimas found himself increasingly pressured by the mid-century evolution of linguistics: trends in descriptive linguistics seriously rivalled Romance philology and later all but eclipsed it. New or greatly expanded fields in formal syntax, and in quantitative linguistics, as well as explorations in machine translation and in logical semantics displaced some of the traditional interests of French language studies, such as morphology, detailed descriptive grammar (à la Grevisse), etymology, and the preparation of early French manuscripts. A comparative and historical approach to earlier and dialectal forms of Romance languages receded in favor of descriptions of contemporary French as a synchronic whole.
The new currents in language study include a diversity of assumptions and methods, and anyone searching for a new approach would have to make clear choices among alternatives, or make do with profound internal contradictions. Moreover, the trends did not address essential ongoing objectives of Greimas's research any more than previous mainstream methods had: phonology and syntax dwarf lexicology and semantics (but see Brøndal 1940, Ullmann 1952, Matoré 1953, and Bazell 1953). Bloomfieldian American structuralism declares meaning terra incognita and non grata for linguistics, as information theory and logical positivism assert syntax to be asemantic. Saussurean "language" (langue) and Hjelmslevian "form" situate the object of a socio-historical lexicology outside the inner sanctum of linguistics, or deny its existence. To convert to the incoming linguistics of the '50s would mean to abandon the entire earlier lexicological vision of studying civilizations in history.
The second epitaph indicates that Greimas none the less actively embraced at least certain aspects of newer trends in linguistics. His appreciation for Hjelmslev's Prolegomena, a spare, clean, ambitious manifesto that looks toward axiomatic formulation and formal, logico-mathematical methods, clashes with the philological tradition, and places Greimas in harmony instead with the theoretical and abstract bent of important postwar trends. Judging from the numerous references made to the Prolegomena in 1956 and 1959 articles, Greimas's first reading apparently took place soon after the 1953 publication of the English translation, the version he cites. Hjelmslev's intuition of a "content form" parallel to the "expression form" remained one of the key founding principles throughout Greimas's career. His review of Quemada (1955) also contrasts the privileged objective and systematic analyses offered by continental structural linguistics with the impressionistic and subjective identification of witness-words (mots-témoins) central to the lexicology he had undertaken with Matoré, unchanged from Brunot's contributions to the history of vocabulary in that respect (Greimas 1958, 111-112, cf. Greimas and Matoré 1948, 417 and Matoré 1953, 65-67). The failure of the lexicological descriptive study on painting provided an additional compelling incentive for adjustment and openness to other methodologies.
In addition, outside linguistics itself as it developed in France, innovative research inspired by the new paradigms gaining prominence in the postwar years address concerns fundamental to La mode en 1830 and "La méthode en lexicologie." In his 1953 inaugural address at the Collège de France, Merleau-Ponty looked to the Cours de linguistique générale (CLGhereafter) for a new philosophy of history, and made extensive use of Saussurean concepts in attempting to rethink the place of individual creativity in society (while inadvertently switching the terms langue and parole). Lévi-Strauss's essay and travelogue Tristes Tropiques (1955b) drew public attention to research in social anthropology that undertakes something like structural versions of a socio-historical lexicology, bringing formal methods and discourse analysis to bear on studies of kinship, folk taxonomies, material culture, and myth (Dumézil 1942-47, 1953, Lévi-Strauss 1945, 1955a; Conklin 1955, Goodenough 1956, Lounsbury 1956, Leach 1961). Similar influences inflect Lacan's recentering of psychoanalysis on "the talking cure" and on the ways in which symbolic mechanisms and communicative dynamics enter into disorders and cures (1953, 1957). The '50s also saw the development in France of new currents in literary criticism, some of which shared concerns with linguistics or with Greimas's lexicological research. In 1953 Roland Barthes, whom Greimas had met in Alexandria three years previously, published his seminal Degré zéro de l'écriture (Writing Degree Zero), which integrates elements of continental structuralism (Brøndal, Saussure) into a sociological history of literary forms and styles. The status of Marxism as an influential global world view, and as a potent intellectual and political force, provided a context in which notions of totalities and systems, and the importance of History and social structures, appear taken for granted, perspectives surfacing in the revival of Hegelianism as well (Lukács 1948, Gramsci 1953; Hyppolite 1946, Kojève 1947).
In a process over time which included
resistance, adaptation and assimilation, conversion and
innovation, Greimas took up with the newer methodologies.
Given his general manner of proceeding, readings and
conversations with colleagues probably prompted short
experimental descriptive studies in syntax and semantics, some
of which may have been further elaborated to appear in
publications of the '60s. By 1956 he was arguing the case of
Saussurism in lexicology and outlining an interdisciplinary
structural semiology, by 1959 advancing a program for the
machine-assisted study of French, and in the '60s was
practicing a kind of Prague structuralism and Benvenistean
discourse analysis in semantics. Articles from the latter part
of the '50s, and work published in the '60s, indicate that he
studied and adopted features of Brøndal's and Jakobson's
descriptions of parts of speech and syntactic features,
initiated himself into the syntactic models of Tesnière and
Togeby, and followed research in machine translation and data
processing (Locke and Booth eds. 1955, Babel1956,
Jakobson 1957, Cros, Gardin, and Levy 1964). He worked through
and picked up on Hjelmslev's Saussurean vision of language and
science as semiotics, entailing a rigorous description of
signifying structures (cf. also Buyssens 1943 and Morris
1946). The formal aspects of the new research prompted a
reading or a reconsideration of analytic philosophy and
logical positivism, including Russell, Reichenbach, and
Tarski. More broadly, Greimas, like others, found
epistemological resonances between the new European structural
linguistics, on the one hand, and currents such as Gestalt
theory and the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty,
with which he was undoubtedly already familiar, on the other
(Koffka 1935, Jakobson, Karcewski, and Trubetzkoy 1928; cf.
Matoré 1953, 63-64, Holenstein 1974, and Calvet 1995, 91-95).
His commitment to phenomenology does not seem to have extended
to any great sympathy for Sartrean existentialism.
III. "L'Actualité du saussurisme"
The first major pronouncement in the shift toward newer methods comes in a broad-ranging theoretical manifesto published in 1956, "L'actualité du saussurisme" 'The Contemporaneity of Saussurism,' which argues for a structural historical linguistics. The article situates the latter within an overall interdisciplinary inquiry into the social that includes the study of music and plastic arts as cultural signs--within, in other words, what will become "structuralism" and semiology. Founded in principles articulated by Saussure and Hjelmslev, and inspired by the results achieved by Jakobson in phonology, the method asserts a vigorous historical perspective, repudiating a universalist position or an exclusive concentration on synchronic studies, both associated with nascent structuralism. The earlier transdisciplinary project outlined in the manifestoes for a new lexicology reemerges with a linguistic program that goes far beyond vocabulary alone, and with a renovated and amplified epistemological basis.
Greimas offers a general picture of what in a first moment he considers essential to Saussure (unless otherwise indicated, pages refer to the 1956 article published in Le français moderne):
L'originalité de la contribution de Ferdinand de Saussure réside, croyons-nous, dans la transformation d'une vision du monde qui lui fut propre--et qui consiste à saisir le monde comme un vaste réseau de relations, comme une architecture de formes chargées de sens, portant en elles-mêmes leur propre signification--en une théorie de la connaissance et une méthodologie linguistique. Car, loin de se satisfaire d'une phénomenologie descriptive ou, comme l'appelle Louis Hjelmslev, d'une 'description pure, plus proche de la poésie que de la science exacte' [...] Saussure a su éprouver la valeur épistémologique de son postulat en l'appliquant à une science de l'homme particulière, la linguistique (p. 192-193; cited within is Hjelmslev (1943, 8-9 [Fr. 16]).
The "world view" and general epistemological stance entail apprehending the world as a network of relations, reversing the positivistic and erudite cult of the isolated fact dear to the traditional lexicological method (cf. Greimas 1956-57, 17-18). Crucially, in Greimas's version of the founding Saussurean scenario, subjects encounter and grapple with an "architecture of forms charged with meaning": to grasp the world entails that signification is always already there. This semanticized perspective, at odds with logical positivism as with American structuralism, is implied in the CLG image of the sign as a sheet of paper At the same time, it maintains a salient principle of the work so important to the between-the-two-wars period, Damourette and Pichon's Des mots à la pensée (cf. Arrivé 1994, 142). The valorization of science over philosophy in the passage will remain a key driving force within structuralism, as within Greimas's career up to Sémiotique des passions (Greimas and Fontanille 1991).
Animadverting upon the "disturbing disaffection for methodological reflection" in French linguistic circles (p. 191) that fosters an uncritical continuation of the philological tradition, the 1956 article emphasizes that Saussurism defies the very notion of 'theory avoidance' by asserting that an object is constituted only from a given point of view. While any new methodology that challenges the status quo of a discipline generates theoretical debate, structuralism does so in a radical manner by virtue of its own internal logic. This point implicitly accounts for the project of the article itself even as it announces what will be a constant of the structuralist adventure.
The interest of "L'actualité du
saussurisme" lies first, in the at times idiosyncratic
"Saussurism" it constructs, and secondly, how it proposes to
extend that Saussurism from its home base in the functional
language to wider and wider concentric circles in the human
III.2. Greimas's "Saussurism"
1) Sign and language. Greimas argues that the concepts of language (langue) and sign proposed in the CLG allow linguistics to define itself as a powerful and focused scientific project. In harmony with the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Saussurean linguistics thus conceived overcomes the dichotomy of thought and word that has paralyzed French psychology and threatened to desiccate the modern science of language. Moreover, as Hjelmslev demonstrates in his Prolegomena, this fundamental Saussurean insight is transferable to other disciplines, transforming the linguistic concepts into general epistemological principles and pointing to a unified science of the social.
"L'actualité du saussurisme" echoes the CLG's triumphant and peremptory assertion that establishing language (langue) as the object of inquiry establishes a coherent point of view from which all the phenomena of speech take their place, while speaking (parole) remains an indefinite spreading out in duration, comprising an infinite miscellany of facts and deeds, a pot-pourri of perspectives (CLG, 7-9 [Fr. 23-25], cf. Hjelmslev 1943, 127 [Fr. 160]). The article asserts attributes and scientific results of Saussure's language, and the scope of its application, rather than specifying the kinds of relations posited, or the modes of research and study implied. Saussure's concepts of difference, value, and of the "mechanism" of language wed his conception of language to that of the sign, for the relational and semanticized conception of the latter as a function comprising signifier and signified goes hand and hand with the similarly Janus language (langue) conceived as a network of relations charged with meaning.
C'est en partant du concept linguistique du signifiant, indissolublement lié au signifié(celui-ci n'étant connu que par celui-là), de la notion de langue, cet être à double face, conçue comme 'une forme et non comme (une) substance,' que s'effectue le passage de la linguistique aux autres sciences humaines, l'extrapolation méthodologique du saussurisme et que s'affirme le postulat saussurien d'un monde structuré, saisissable dans ses significations (p. 192-193; cited within is CLG, 157).
The structures of signifiers and signifieds in a language replace the notion that the mind thinks with disembodied ideas or concepts, then translates them into the values and forms of language when externalizing them (cf. Bally and Sechehaye 1928, 47). The Saussurean perspective parallels Merleau-Ponty's crucial concept of language as an extension of the body through action (1945, ch. 7)--while dance, drawing, and musical interpretation likewise form parallel modes of immediate expression. In banning reference to states in the world, the Saussurean postulate of structures of signifiers and signifieds runs counter to traditional "triangles of meaning" from Aristotle to I. A. Richards, in which a linguistic symbol designates an object in the world, via mediating referential concepts.
Greimas follows Lévi-Strauss in emphasizing the salutary open-ended character of Saussurean language in contrast to traditional maps of cognitive processes (Lévi-Strauss 1973 [1955b], 55). While incorporating the heritage of French sociology (cf. Doroszewski 1933), Saussurism goes beyond Durkheim by integrating into a global purview the kinds of relations and processes often segregated and devalued by such labels as 'prelogical' or 'unconscious' (cf. Boas 1911, 130-144 on "primitive" [vs. civilized], also 'poetic,' 'feminine'):
Si, par certains côtés, le concept saussurien de langue paraît bien reposer sur 'la conscience collective' de Durkheim, il la dépasse néanmoins dans ce sens qu'au lieu d'exiger le recours aux catégories fondamentales de l'esprit, au lieu de faire appel, dans une analyse ultérieure, aux distinctions traditionnelles et arbitraires du logique et du prélogique, du conscient et de l'inconscient, il permet de recouvrir, à l'aide du signifiant global, tout l'espace social et d'étudier ensuite celui-ci comme un système homogène et fermé (p. 194).
Littré discusses various forms of catachresis and paronomasia in historical semantics under the heading "pathology of language" (Littré 1880). In a similar vein, Bally and Sechehaye bemoan the "intellectual regression" that language can impose on more advanced, contemporary thought, citing the example of gender in French:
L'obligation, en français, de distinguer les genres en dehors de la distinction des sexes, est un exemple classique de primitivité; car, ne reposant plus sur aucune réalité psychologique, elle nous force à pénétrer tout le vocabulaire d'une sorte de mythologie puérile (Bally and Sechehaye 1928, 47).
The Port-Royal grammar, by ignoring the formation of words, lexicology, and historical semantics, simply obviates much of the "pathological" functioning of language. A science which takes as its object the integral functioning of language studies the manifold forms of discourse, without deleting or valorizing different kinds of structures, deemed alien, infantile, or primitive.
The semiological foundations of this Saussurism evince parallels as well as contrasts with the earlier perspectives of the lexicology Greimas outlined in collaboration with Matoré. The lexicology works with vocabulary items, explicitly considered as purely semantic units, defined by the things, values, and activities of a society. La mode en 1830 thus speaks of "signs" (of language) and "signifieds" (of the social world), and emphasizes that the external form of the word is irrelevant to a semantic study such as lexicology. "La méthode en lexicologie" argues the case for semantic architectures and functional wholes, but does not situate those structures within the realm of language. A Saussurean approach calls for taking the semantic units as linked to the signifier structures, and tied up with linguistic structures at different levels (cf. Greimas 1958, 112).
Note that the importance granted to
substituting language and other signifying ensembles in
the place of a psychology of ideas implies that the
description of linguistic structures alters the character of
the semantics aimed at, in ways that may not yet be explicit
in the general article, and indeed in ways that Greimas may
only glimpse in 1956. In the absence of such a contrast in
descriptive practices, one could simply rename the earlier
psychology "language," and the much-heralded epistemological
shift would become a terminological switch. The question
becomes critical when in semiotics la langue 'language'
gives way to le langage 'the language faculty,' near
synonym of mind.
2) The social. Adopting Hjelmslev's theoretical extension of Saussurism to the status of an epistemology, Greimas uses language (langue) and speaking (parole) as general scientific terms (p. 194, cf. Hjelmslev's system and process), highlighting their application to social analysis by Lévi-Strauss and Merleau-Ponty. In the fields of sociology and political economy, a diversity of perspectives and a cumbersome infinitude of data similarly stymie analysis, an impasse which Saussurean langue with its emphasis on functioning wholes can resolve for a Lévi-Strauss:
L'application du postulat saussurien lui permet, au contraire, d'opposer valablement le "procès" de la communication des femmes aux structures de la parenté, l'échange des biens et des services à la structure économique. Soit en général: les relations sociales, objet de la psychologie sociale, à la structure sociale, objet de la sociologie, ou, pour appliquer la terminologie marxiste que préfére M. Merleau-Ponty--ménageant ainsi une ouverture possible de la sociologie à l'histoire--les forces productives aux formes de la production (p. 195).
The concept of Saussurean language enables the sociologist to construct facts, deeds, and events in society as moments in social structures. Having already adopted Hjelmslev's generalization of the linguistic language/speaking, Greimas superimposes the Marxist terms of Merleau-Ponty, mode of production/productive forces. This move positions time and change within structures themselves--for any mode of production remains historically bound and subject to profound transformations--and reintegrates into the structuralist purview non-verbal behavior and the environment, which remain bracketed in the CLG, as in the Geneva school (Bally, Sechehaye).
The use of Saussurean notions in Lévi-Strauss and Merleau-Ponty allows Greimas to redefine structuralism as a theory explicitly focused on the social, and thus as an effective overarching framework for a unified approach to analyzing societies that encompasses linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and political economy:
L'importance de la tâche, entreprise parallèlement par C. Lévi-Strauss et M. Merleau-Ponty, n'échappe à personne. Car il ne s'agit ni plus ni moins que de réaffirmer, en partant du postulat saussurien, et en l'appliquant aussi bien à l' 'ordre pensé' qu'à l' 'ordre vécu,' l'autonomie et la réalité de la dimension sociale, de l'objet social. A travers les différences de terminologie: Lévi-Strauss préférant peut-être l'inconscient collectif, Merleau-Ponty l'espace social autonome, et malgré les divergences de présuppositions métaphysiques, apparaît cependant la réalité sociale, intelligible, comme le morceau de cire de Descartes, dans la transparence de son réseau relationnel, et totale, car elle contient, à des niveaux structurels différents, et le système capitaliste décrit par Karl Marx et le système linguistique de Ferdinand de Saussure (p. 195).
Saussure's langue is translated into
a sociology that embraces cultural symbolisms, administrative
and organizational hierarchies, economic production,
distribution, and consumption, along with other institutions
(family, profession, ethnic group).
3) History. "L'actualité du saussurisme" follows Jakobson and goes against the CLG by arguing that synchronic research needs to be complemented by an equally vigorous historical approach which, focused on the process of change itself, can dissolve the antinomies of synchrony and diachrony. Rejecting the exclusion of history (cf. "l'étude de la grammaire d'une langue ne peut reposer sur l'histoire de cette langue; elle doit être rigoureusement statique; grammaire et histoire sont des termes qui s'excluent réciproquement," Bally and Sechehaye 1928, 37), this position locates time and change within a language grasped at any given moment (cf. Benveniste and von Wartburg as well). Greimas likewise repudiates panchronism and its universalism, in which attested forms become indices of closed inventories of an "ideal repertory" (Lévi-Strauss, cf. Brøndal) and affirms instead history conceived as a creative process with open and indefinable possibilities. This historicity acts both as structural tendencies within language (langue), and as the dynamism within speaking (parole), or praxis, in Merleau-Ponty's formulation (p. 201-202). "L'actualité du saussurisme" pronounces the historical dimension a necessary condition for the scientificity of sociological studies, including those it proposes to undertake.
The article thus isolates and separates two
of the major contrasts between philology and structural
linguistics: positivistic vs structural, and historical
vs synchronic, selecting one term from each category in
its hybrid project that proposes to move forward forging past
III.3. Extensions of Saussurism
Taking inspiration from the wider
Saussurism found in the social theory of Lévi-Strauss and
Merleau-Ponty, "L'actualité du saussurisme" urges extending
the linguistic project that initially proved its worth in
phonology along three lines: 1) into the lexicon and
semantics; 2) into a sociolinguistic study of discursive
institutions; and 3) into non-verbal forms of
1) Semantics and lexicology. The components of language receiving closest scrutiny in linguistics remain the phonological and morpho-syntactic structures which underpin communication. An alternative way of considering language is:
comme une sorte de condensé de la totalité de messages humains échangés, le signifiant linguistique recouvrant alors un vaste signifié dont l'extension correspondra, à peu de choses près, au concept de culture (p. 196).
When viewed as relational and semanticized, morpho-syntactic categories (e.g. number and gender) can be conflated with lexical categories (e.g. those found in the vocabulary of color), and linguistics can study "the infinite text" as a whole from a unified perspective, as Hjelmslev proposes. In principle, then, one can apply structural methods to the description of culture as it appears throughout the signifiers and signifieds of language. If phonologists and syntacticians manifest resistance to the notion of such an extension of structuralism, other disciplines such as history vocally recognize the necessity of taking account of language in their research, as does Marc Bloch in his research on medieval social structures (1939), or Lucien Febvre in his study of disbelief in the Sixteenth Century (1942). A social, historical, and structural semantics could offer other human sciences valuable cooperation.
From this collaboration on a common task involving semantics, lexicology, and discourse analysis could emerge what historians such as Bloch (1949, 28) and Charles Morazé (1950, 207) call for:
les méthodes qui favoriseraient la description des structures, la construction des 'modèles' de mentalité, de sensibilité ou de moralités collectives, une lexicologie sociale et historique--conçue en tant que méthodologie et non en tant que discipline in-dépendante, et qui, malgré les efforts de J. Trier et, plus récemment, de G. Matoré, n'arrive pas encore à sortir de ses langes--laquelle pourrait bien remplir le rôle de conseiller et de guide, assigné actuellement aux disciplines situées aux confins de plusieurs sciences (p. 197).
Devised as a methodology and not as a
separate discipline, the lexicological project can assert its
worth as catalyst and guide in elaborating a common language
in the interdisciplinary study of societies.
2) Social metalanguages. Within the social domain organized or covered by language are a number of areas which
paraissent plus fortement structurés, plus homogènes que d'autres, non seulement parce qu'ils s'appuient, au niveau de l''ordre vécu,' sur des groupements sociaux à contours délimités ou sur des fonctions sociales nettement caractérisées, mais surtout parce qu'une signification globale et autonome semble se dégager de ses ensembles structureé. Nous pensons, notamment, aux systèmes mythologiques, religieux, ou à cette forme moderne de la fabulation qu'est la littérature (p. 197).
Popular oral narratives, religion, and
literature use language, considered a system of signs, to
construct orders of thought which mediate between the signs of
language and techniques, or work. Following Hjelmslev, Greimas
terms such ensembles "metalanguages" (Hjelmslev 1943, ch. 22),
and notes that research by Lévi-Strauss, Dumézil, and Roland
Barthes point to methods for analyzing them. For example,
rhetorical examinations of a literary period, such as one sees
in Bruneau's volumes of Histoire de la langue
française, provide a notion of a period style, and point
to an approach to the signifiers of literary metalanguages,
while Barthes's "writing" (écriture) recognizes that
the signifiers imply and entail a global signified comprising
esthetic taste and ethical choice, History and individual
action (p. 198-199). The "metalanguages" thus envisioned
parallel Soviet "secondary modeling systems" and announce
Foucault's studies of language and power structures (Lucid ed.
1977, Foucault 1971).
3. Toward semiology. Alongside language, other cultural signifying ensembles such as music and the plastic arts evince the same "outpouring of significations" as language and evolve in the same flux of history and social forces:
Il ne faut pas oublier que le langage articulé n'épuise ni tous les messages, ni tous les signes, que la langue n'est pas co-extensive à la culture: les formes plastiques, les structures musicales, par exemple, recouvrent au même titre et avec le même jaillissement de significations, de vastes régions de l'espace social (p. 199).
Brought under the umbrella of semiology hinted at by Saussure and further discussed by Hjelmslev (CLG, 16 [Fr. 33], Hjelmslev 1943, ch. 22), these non-verbal media can be studied by bringing to bear the principles of structural linguistics on musicological research by Focillon and intuitions of immanent analyses of visual art by Malraux (p. 199-200).
* * *
In place of the more customary layered architecture of phonological structures or grammatical rules, the view of language that emerges from "L'actualité du saussurisme" is one of a material and symbolic condensation of a civilization, a vast and dense medium constituting a way of life, in constant contact with the lived physical, economic, and political world, and constantly evolving in relation to non-verbal structures and practice in sympathetic and dialectical manner. The work of Lévi-Strauss and Barthes provides Greimas (1956) crucial descriptive studies that illustrate how societies and extensive texts and discursive corpora are susceptible to structural analysis. Their descriptions and methodological proposals set up an integration of theoretical and philosophical formulations by Hjelmslev and Merleau-Ponty into the fundamental assumptions of a semiology.
In a sense, Greimas's project essentially
brings together the vision of Hjelmslev's Saussurean
Prolegomena and the lexicology elaborated previously
with Matoré. For while Hjelmslev advances the epistemological
and methodological model of semiology ("semiotics," etc.) as
an ensemble of interdependent structures of signifiers and
signifieds ("expression" and "content" planes), Greimas
innovates by incorporating an ambitious social and historical
semantics. As a result, whereas Hjelmslev's linguistic "form"
is a hierarchy of presuppositional relations among signs found
in texts, Greimas's language becomes a world view and the
medium of action.
IV.1. Topical issues
Beyond its programmatic propositions, the 1956 text entails a topical dimension related to the "linguistic wars" of the day and to the intellectual evolution of the author. Greimas admits going through a professional mid-life crisis, having found himself in the peculiar situation that whereas eminent philologists who were master-thinkers of his university training disparage the esotericism of the Saussurean Prague and Danish schools, outside linguistics the CLG is celebrated as a revolutionary work by the most challenging and innovative thinkers in the human and social sciences. Rather than articulating an apology for any existing position, "L'actualité du saussurisme" proposes a reflection originating in the multifaceted and pivotal work of Ferdinand de Saussure that can lead to constructing a new project for the science of language and for the human sciences at large.
Embracing key structuralist tenets while placing great emphasis on a genuine historical program splits the difference between the two chief global factions, historical and structuralist, offering a "big tent" under which both can gather, and thus stave off a schism. Published in an established philological journal by a trained philologist, the article could reasonably hope to attract fellow traditional linguists willing or eager to update their approach, but loath to jettison history. Highly-respected in numerous currents in linguistics, including both historical and structural, the Genevan Neogrammarian offered a strategic vehicle for Greimas's hybrid endeavor, and 'Saussurism' likely gave a less unpalatable ring than 'structuralism' to philologists. Ultimately, the wider audience for the article proved to be scholars in other fields, from philosophy to anthropology, from sociology to fine arts, who took an interest in structuralism and its linguistic bases.
IV.2. Totalities, change, and heterogeneity
1) History, praxis, and speaking. In
"L'actualité du saussurisme," the social and relational
character of language (langue), as distinct from
speaking (parole), founds the efficacy of linguistics
and the scientificity of its extension through Saussurism to
different fields (p. 193-197). Once the panorama of potential
applications is completed, however, speaking reappears in the
guise of individuality, creativity, and marginality that
vitalize an endeavor such as literature, whereupon it assumes
a place alongside and in tension with the totalizing social
perspective associated with language (p. 200-201). Finally, in
the concluding discussion of history, speaking and praxis take
on the status of structural principles in the global economy
of a semiology (201-203). Thus, initially banned in order to
found a science of langue, speaking returns at the end
of the article as a necessary condition of science. There is
no need to seek aporia where there is none: one can consider
langue an ensemble of habits and existing structures,
parole the constant variation and transformations
within habitual patterns, and impinging on the latter
qua structures to various degrees. Yet if those
differences and changes represent a founding structural
instance, as claimed at the end of "L'actualité du
saussurisme," a theory needs to take them into account in
posing its foundations.
2) Homogeneity and totality. The lure of langue represents the most striking instance of a more general conviction manifested in the article that totality, purity, and sharpness lead to desired power and clarity, whereas the contrary qualities engender weakness and confusion, a position that resonates with the political and esthetic trends of the day.
Structural linguistics presents language as an immanent and highly patterned entity. The phonology and morphology that form the backbone of its practice up to the '50s give the picture of a simple and rigorous combinatorics of limited categories, or as Greimas notes:
l'homogénéité du signifiant linguistique a certainement favorisé au départ les recherches des linguistes de Prague et de Copenhague dont l'effort théorique, remarquable par les résultats atteints dans le domaine de la formalisation, explique seul la renaissance actuelle du saussurisme et son expansion méthodologique (p. 195).
The notion of a "homogeneous" and structured signifier play an important role in delimiting the immanent object. "L'actualité du saussurisme" proposes that the conjunction of these structuralist principles, homogeneity of the signifier and immanent analysis, can be maintained throughout a wider study of language, including domains generally ignored, censored, or ostracized from language-as-form in structural linguistics, including historical and social semantics, rhetoric and poetics, and sociolinguistics. The arguments rely on recurrent and valorized tropes of topology and textures that construct an esthetics of modernity, vaunting homogeneous wholes and sharp contours, while spurning heterogeneous and fragmented spaces and multiple perspectives, features recognizable today as entering into an esthetics of postmodernity (cf. Baroque).
Following the work of structural linguistics, as well as that of Lévi-Strauss and the postwar Sorbonne lexicologists, the article recursively applies the notion of the signifier at a higher level, covering all of society, and affirms that:
le concept saussurien de langue[...] permet de recouvrir, à l'aide du signifiant global, tout l'espace social et d'étudier ensuite celui-ci comme un système homogène et fermé (p. 194).
The same notion of an exhaustive, closed set of signifiers allows Greimas to conceive of a catalog of rhetorical procedures which would constitute the signifier for the signifieds of "literature," conceived as an ideology. Elaborated in a uniform methodology, the rhetorical catalog implicitly postulates ("if it is exhaustive"):
l'existence d'un plan unique et homogène sur lequel se construisent les oeuvres et se déroulent les événements littéraires (p. 198).
A necessary step in extending the model inherited from phonology is the postulation of an immediate solidarity between signifier and signified that permeates "L'actualité du saussurisme" and that founds its general vision of Saussurism, underwriting the image of "a structured world, that can be apprehended in its significations" (p. 193). Similarly, metalanguages are identified as domains that appear "more tightly structured, more homogeneous than others" thanks not only to the "demarcated contours" of the appurtenant social groups, but also to the "global signified" with which they are associated (p. 197, emphasis added).
In point of fact, the measure of closure and homogeneity found in the linguistic signifier patently cannot guarantee the kind of methodological coherence and semantic unity sought and abruptly affirmed in "L'actualité du saussurisme." The hundred or so characters available on a computer keyboard can be analyzed as a closed and homogeneous ensemble of signifiers. Yet from the relative finiteness and comparability of those symbols, one cannot extrapolate any powerful constraints on the semantic organization of a text produced using the computer, with which one can write about anything, in any fashion. It is true that structural phonology and morphology do not study the signifier as symbols on a keyboard. Yet it remains clear that for the objectives sketched in the article, even much more extensive and sophisticated models of signifiers than those elaborated in structural phonology (intonation, graphology and graphetics, prosody, etc.) would still fail to provide any meaningful semantic coherence and unity.
IV.3. Subsequent research
"L'actualité du saussurisme" shows that it is by an unusual detour via developments in sociology and anthropology, in philosophy and literary criticism, that Greimas left the peaceful shores of philology and lexicology to formulate a structural historical linguistics that embraces the entire expanse of meaning articulated in language, studied in its vocabulary, but also throughout discourse, texts, and grammar. In the years that followed, the role that the historical perspective played in his research steadily declined, without disappearing (v. Sémantique structurale and the Dictionnaire de l'ancien français), although he never made a public break with it. Practice also led to discarding the Saussurean doctrine of the sign that represents the signified as tamely attached to a signifier. Already in his structural semantics, the signified explodes into numerous formal constituents (features, operations, internal combinatorics), while in semiotics, more and more instances (levels, components, etc.) intervene between expression and content (Greimas and Courtés 1979). As a result, signs become "appearances" in the face of an underlying panchronic semantic domain; the theory moves from the empirical to the transcendental, searching the general conditions for the production and apprehension of signification.
At the same time, considerable features of Saussure's speaking (parole) and Hjelmslev's process returned with a vengeance in Greimas's theory when he realized that his discourse analysis aims at a study of speaking. Far from figuring as a mere appealing but redundant façade, narrativity in his theory possesses its own complex and autonomous articulation as process, just as praxis elaborates "discursive configurations" (cf. scripts, frames, scenarii) and lexemes that function with the same force for behavior and signification as structures postulated as universals. Similarly, the last articles Greimas penned suggest that the best way to approach the semiotics of a "form of life" might well be to focus on the period in which it first appears, where analysis attends above all to the esthetic dimension of the inchoative process that will end up establishing a new ideology (1993, 1994).
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