Semiotics, authorship and creativity

Though Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotic theories primarily constitute an analysis of language, its overriding principles can also be applied to the analysis of literature. Saussure’s desire to quantify linguistic study into something empirical, systematic and scientific highlights the ultimately methodical nature of speech and the construction of language. Of all the ideas that originate from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, perhaps the most important to the study of literature is the notion that language is beyond the control of the individual: it is an external structure that the individual speaker is unable to influence, only merely to absorb and utilise in an act of passivity. As Saussure states, ‘Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others’.[1] From this we can surmise that speech is largely of a predetermined nature, in that words can only be defined by their relation to other words, meaning there is a degree of inevitability about how a sentence will be constructed, and by extension how conversations are carried out.

This concept has significant implications toward the construction of literary works, and by extension the notion of authorship, creativity and originality, and thus a number of key questions begin to emerge. Namely: can a work truly be termed original if it is constructed using a language system that isn’t created by, and, of course, predates, the author themselves? Can there be anything creative about assimilating and reinforcing what is merely a linguistic system? In order to come to answer these questions, one needs to tackle the concepts of authorship and creativity, whilst attempting to define and possibly redefine them in relation to the linguistic ideas of Saussure, along with the theorists and ideas that Saussure proved an essential catalyst for.

As mentioned previously, the structure of language itself is beyond the control of the author. They are powerless to alter it, and instead must content themselves with adapting their thought process as best they can into arbitrary signifiers from which substance can be derived. The linguistic system determines the writing of a work much in the same way that it dictates the nature of speech. As Raymond Chapman states in Linguistics and Literature, ‘Every writer is a member of a speech-community…Whether he speaks or writes, and however influenced by the demands of either realization, he must select the items available to him in the langue of his speech-community.’[2] Therefore, like speech, writing becomes automatic, its content (or, rather, the words from which that content manifests) determined by the paradigmatic structure of the language in which it is written.

In the same way that a conversation has its premeditated responses back and forth between speakers, the construction of a literary work can be deemed as predetermined by the langue. The course of a conversation has a certain degree of inevitability about it; it is a formality, with participants barely consciously thinking about what they are saying. Any conscious thought is, of course, unnecessary, as the participant has fully assimilated the linguistic system from which they cannot escape. The composition of literature is not all that far removed from this type of conversation, the distinction being that literature is not considered automatic and unconscious. Rather, it is authored, composed with a degree of deliberation and contemplation. However, this concept of the author as creator is something of a fallacy, or at least extremely misleading. At a most basic level, there is a large degree of compositionality inherent to the construction of literature. Sentence composition conforms to Frege’s ‘principle of compositionality’, which states that ‘the meaning of a composite expression is a function of the meanings of its component expressions’.[3] This implies that there are certain rules essential to the construction of sentences in order for them to make sense and for meaning to be derived. When applied to literature and sentence-making, this principle manifests itself through the rules of grammar and syntax. These ‘rules’ are essential to the composition of a text, yet the author has no option but to abide by them. These rules are, like langue itself, passively and unconsciously assimilated from an early age until their implementation becomes automatic. The words themselves are almost irrelevant, so long as the rules of syntax are abided by and maintained. This theory is proven by examining the frequently used example of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. Take the phrase ‘and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe’[4], for example. While the words are for the most part completely nonsensical (though Carroll does proceed to define them in Through the Looking-Glass), yet due to the sentence abiding to syntactical rules we are able to deduce that ‘slithy’ is an adjective, that ‘toves’ is a noun in plural form, that ‘gyre’ is a verb, and so on. Even this attempt to displace and parody the linguistic code cannot escape it; as Jonathan Culler writes in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, such acts:

provide conclusive evidence for the existence of a semiotic system which makes literature possible…the flouting of linguistic and literary conventions by which literary works bring about a renewal of perception testifies to the importance of a system of conventions as the basis of literary signification.[5]

Even so-called ‘stream of consciousness’ works still largely adhere to these rules: it is almost laughable for this narrative style to attempt to convey original thoughts and feelings in an unconscious and natural manner, when the only unconscious thought evident is the adherence to the rules of syntax. So it becomes somewhat dubious therefore to suggest that this extended process of assimilation can be deemed an entirely creative act.

So if a systematic approach can be taken to defining the composition of a single sentence, the same approach can also therefore be applied to a wider sphere: the construction of a narrative. This leads us to the work of Roland Barthes and the concept of structuralism. There is no doubting the influence that Saussure’s ideas had on the structuralist approach to literature, as Barthes himself states, ‘the analyst [of narrative forms] finds himself in more or less the same situation as Saussure confronted by the heterogeneity of language.’[6] As Barthes states in ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’, ‘it is impossible to combine (to produce) a narrative without reference to an implicit system of units and rules’.[7] Perhaps then, in regards to literature, creativity is analogous to conformity, in that the author is not in actuality creating anything, or at least not anything entirely new or original. It seems that the author pieces together the narrative, rather than actually creating it; authorship appears to be the assembly of a narrative in a way that appears to be unique, different or original. As Barthes says, ‘There does, of course, exist an ‘art’ of the storyteller, which is the ability to generate narratives (messages) from the structure (the code).’[8] This is compounded by Terry Eagleton, who explains that ‘When we analyse literature we are speaking of literature; when we evaluate it we are speaking of ourselves…literary works are made out of other literary works, not out of any material external to the literary system itself.’[9] In light of this we find ourselves moving further and further away from the idea of ‘author’ being synonymous with ‘creator’. As a result of this any grand notion of originality and self-expression is also lost, as the author cannot conceivably express internal feelings using external concepts in an act that Saussure says ‘never requires premeditation.’[10] In ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes suggests that the author’s

only power is to mix writings…in such a way as never to rest on any of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.[11]

Jean-Paul Sartre voices a similar concern in What is Literature?, in which he writes that ‘when the words form under his pen…the function of his gaze is…to control the sketching of the signs. In short, it is a purely regulating process, and the view before him reveals nothing except for slight slips of the pen’.[12] In no way then can it be seen that the author constructs the meaning of what he writes, as it is both predetermined by the overriding structure of the language as a whole, and then reinterpreted by the reader. Here we can see that as a consequence of the theories of Saussure, and subsequently of Barthes, our perception of the position and importance of the author is significantly altered, and his role reassigned.

In fact, the nature of the word, or the sign, as an entity is perhaps the biggest indication of a lack of substantial creativity. As stated by Saussure, ‘The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.’[13] This means that there is no inherent reason or logic behind the particular relationship between the signifier, or ‘sound-image’[14] and the signified, or the ‘concept’.[15] From this we can take that the words that make up a piece of literature are devoid of inherent meaning, and lack any autonomous function. As Barthes says in ‘Is There Any Poetic Writing?’, ‘no word has a density by itself, it is hardly the sign of a thing, but rather the means of conveying a connection.’[16] Extending this idea, we can surmise that in no way can it be said that the author creates anything resembling meaning: the author puts pen to paper and writes words, forms sentences, constructs narratives. The words themselves create meaning for themselves in the mind of the reader. It could be argued that the author manipulates the langue in order to instigate the parole between text and reader, but the role of the author in the creation of meaning is fairly insignificant to the reader.

From this examination it becomes apparent that Saussure’s primary semiotic theories of language have had a rather drastic effect upon the way in which we view ideas of authorship and creativity. Saussure’s ideas regarding the sign, langue and parole have highlighted to us the extreme rigidity of the structure of language, while simultaneously making us aware of and thus reinforcing its limits. This awareness of the rigidity of language and the degree of inevitability in constructing language paved the way for future analysis coming from structuralism and narratology, particularly the work of Roland Barthes. This study of the firm structure in place in the construction of each and every work has led the role of the author to be questioned and diminished, with the creativity involved in authorship to be severely doubted. It seems then that the role and importance of authorship and individual has become somewhat inconsequential to the generation of meaning in words, in narrative and in literature as a whole; this can be largely seen as result of the immense influence that Saussure’s work has had on subsequent literary criticism.


Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, ‘Is There Any Poetic Writing?’ in Writing Degree Zero, trans. By Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1967) pp. 41-54

Barthes, Roland, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’ in Image, Music, Text, trans. and ed. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp. 79-124

Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of The Author’ in Image, Music, Text, trans. and ed. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp. 142-8

Carroll, Lewis, ‘Jabberwocky’ in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996)

Chapman, Raymond, Linguistics and Literature: An Introduction to Literary Stylistics (London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1973)

Culler, Jonathan, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1981)

Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd edition (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1996)

Lyons, John, Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Sartre, Jean-Paul, What is Literature? Trans. by Bernard Frechtman (Northampton: John Dickens & Co Ltd., 1967)

Saussure, Ferdinand de, ‘Course in General Linguistics’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), pp. 59-71


[1] Ferdinand de Saussure, ‘Course in General Linguistics’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), pp. 59-71 (p.66)

[2] Raymond Chapman, Linguistics and Literature: An Introduction to Literary Stylistics (London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1973), pp. 35-6

[3] John Lyons, Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 204

[4] Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’ in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 1033

[5] Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1981), p. 37

[6] Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’ in Image, Music, Text, trans. and ed. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp. 79-124 (p. 80)

[7] Ibid. p. 81

[8] Ibid. p. 80

[9] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd edition (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1996) p. 80

[10] Saussure, ‘Course in General Linguistics’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology, p. 60

[11] Barthes, ‘The Death of The Author’ in Image, Music, Text, pp. 142-8 (p.146)

[12] Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature? Trans. by Bernard Frechtman (Northampton: John Dickens & Co Ltd., 1967), p. 29

[13] Saussure, ‘Course in General Linguistics’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology, p. 62

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Roland Barthes, ‘Is There Any Poetic Writing?’ in Writing Degree Zero, trans. By Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1967) pp. 41-54 (p. 44)

Advertisements