What's fascinating to me is that this binary tendency is so strong in us that even if we think about the opposite of the binary tendency, we are still within the binary framework. Binary versus Fuzzy, for instance. I sincerely wonder if can avoid thinking in these terms. Obviously we can become self-conscious about it, and dodge some of the negative consequences. But perhaps the human form of life will always experience reality in such terms, and one might add that the notion of a reality outside human experience still resides within
human experience. We are crawling on the inner surface of a hollow sphere. The limits of our language/self are the limits of our reality?? I do generally feel this way, but I don't want to come off too strong or maniacal on the point.
A vulgar-empiricist walks into a bar and insists that her narratives, discourses, twists and turns of phrases are not narratives at all. "No." She claims. "My narratives relate to truth and reality and what really happens, or happened. And I oppose what I am doing with myth and fiction, and that dodgy continental stuff and the tripe spilling from eastern philosophy. Indeed, what I come up with is sharp, critical, so much ever more true and real."
So, ontologically speaking, we've got two grand narratives going on, the binary of discourse: those which claim to be true and those which are not true. And perhaps on another level, those which relate to humans - as in a more existential leaning - and those which have no need to relate to the reader for they refer to events, causal properties, brute facts.
But for me and you, in either case, whether we're doing Baudrillard or Hume, Tao or micro-economics, all we've got in front of us is a narrative, a discourse, a text.
At any given moment, it is reasonable for us to suppose that there is an infinite, or almost infinite number of things happening and all this from an infinite, or almost infinite number of perspectives and interpretations. Sure, some interpretations are better than others - we ought to read a red traffic light as 'stop' before some grave error could occur - but to focus on certain happenings or events, say in history, economics, philosophy, sociology, politics, put them in a certain order, impute somekind of intentionality onto them and then claim "this narrative is true, this is what really
happens", is just weird when you think about it.
Saussure seemed to understand all this - probably influenced a little by Nietzsche - and took it to another level of critical reflection. He argued that language is a system whose linguistic elements have no independent reality, know nothing more, than their order within that given system (the language). It is therefore necessary to consider language a structure in which everything depends on relations in its actual state, present or past, within the system.
When Saussure argued that a language or code is one based on differentiality, something Derrida jumped on, he meant that a language's elements are not defined by their content, but by contrast - our binary conversation - with other elements within the same system. Simply put, the linguistic element cat
is precisely that because it is not dog
, or history
, the letter b
is that within the system, because it is not x
. For Saussure, the entire structure of our language, our way of thinking about things, is based upon oppositions of this type and upon the phonic and conceptual differences they involve.
The Saussurean sign is not some link between a thing and a name, but between a signifier - an acoustic image, or sound - and a signified - a mental concept, or thought - which together form the sign, the meaning. Note the essential binary opposition in linguistic thinking. A sign is immaterial, in talking about things, for example, we have conceptions of things, but not the things themselves. Or again the word 'tree' isn't a tree. To this extent, a word or sentence or entire narrative does not stand for some object or event in reality, but as a system or code of immaterial signs literally lies parallel to that object, there's a relative autonomy between the sign and the thing in reality itself. Going further, there are signs which don't even suggest they refer to anything out-there. Where is 'history', 'however', 'culture', 'what', 'construction', 'mind', 'only', etc?
For Saussure the language we happen to use is an inheritance from the past, it is an always-already given. The relationship between signifier and signified is not a matter for the individual to decide, and to this extent, the individual has no power to alter the sign or code in any respect once it has been firmly established within the linguistic community.
Another important design feature in Saussure's linguistic critique is language's essential arbitrariness. The letter S
, for example, has no connection with the sound it happens to denote, or again, there is nothing legish
about the word leg
. In principle, then, although a sign may be motivated or determined to a certain extent, such as needing a given combination of sounds which conform to the existing system, any signifier could have represented any signified. No doubt Saussure would have agreed with Plato's Cratylus when he claimed that "no one is able to persuade me that the correctness of names is determined by anything besides convention and agreement.
If language is essentially arbitrary, then according to the argument, the categories the sign-system happens to depict are also arbitrary and thus, our linguistic categories are not the consequence of some predefined structure of reality, some big T truth, The Truth of Reality
, but actually constructed by the sign system, the code itself. In other words, the Saussurean understanding of language, our fundamental way of intelligibly cognisising the world, not only lies parallel to reality, but actively constructs the categories of that reality :shocked: