Four Lectures on Meaning

1. Structuralism

“The exchange-value of any commodity is expressed in terms of the use-value of any other commodity, either in whole units or in fractions of that use-value….The commodity, however, is the direct unity of use-value and exchange-value, and at the same time it is a commodity only in relation to other commodities. The exchange process of commodities is the real relation that exists between them. This is a social process which is carried on by individuals independently of each other, but they take part in it only as commodity-owners; they exist for one another only in so far as their commodities exist, they thus appear to be in fact the conscious representatives of the exchange process….Bread, for instance, in passing from the baker to the consumer does not change its character as bread. It is rather that the consumer treats it as a use-value, as a particular foodstuff, whereas so long as it was in the hands of the baker it was simply representative of an economic relation, a concrete and at the same time an abstract thing.”

[K.Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, 1859, reprinted in English, Moscow 1971, pp. 41 – 2]

“By structure, observers of the social understand an organisation, a coherence, fairly fixed relations between realities and social masses. For we historians a structure is no doubt an assemblage, an architecture, but even more a reality which time wears away only slowly and transmits over long periods. Certain long-lived structures become stable elements for infinite generations: they encumber their history and hinder – that is, govern – its development. Others are quicker to crumble away. But all are both supports and obstacles”

[Fernand Braudel, “Writings on History”, p. 23, in John Sturrock, “Structuralism”, London, 1986, p. 61.]

What is Structuralism? For the past 60 years or so, Structuralism has been a major talking point in Western intellectual circles, and particularly within the fields of linguistics, language studies and anthropology, but also within cultural studies, literary criticism, film and fine art studies.

As a movement the term obviously implies something bigger than the ideas or work of one individual – it is more a trend in western thinking which has slowly evolved during the late 19th-century, and formed into a particular conglomeration, especially within French-speaking culture in the 1960’s. Generally, it defines an approach to the analysis of things which concentrates on overall or underlying ‘structures’ rather than on isolating particular details. These things can be words, or systems of grammar; they can be tribal customs and myths; they can be social systems, or systems of marriage and inheritance; or they can be cultural artefacts like novels, paintings or films. What is important is that the particular form of the object analysed is examined and understood within a wider social, linguistic, ethical, historical, ethnic, geographical, economic or cultural sense. As an approach, it is very much to do with understanding the relationships which link individual parts of a structure to the whole scene.

In this sense, much of Western thinking in the 19th-century was concerned with understanding the underlying, often hidden, structures behind things.

Charles Darwin, by a careful analysis of fossils, bone structures, and existing species, came to perceive or deduce a hidden logic in the way species inter-relate, compete for food or shelter, interbreed, are conditioned by climate, vegetation, habitat, etc. and develop by a protracted process of random experimentation and selection of the most ‘efficient’ solutions for each type of creature or plant.

Sigmund Freud, starting from the analysis of nerve signals in the brain, became ever more interested in uncovering the hidden logic behind the workings of the brain, and more particularly the concealed logic behind the apparently irrational actions and fears of his neurotic or hysterical middle class Viennese patients. He was concerned with revealing the hidden structure of the unconscious, and discovering the laws by which it codified reality, the reasons it did this and the hidden meanings behind its apparently baffling products, such as dreams or neurotic symptoms.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were similarly engaged in the vast project of trying to understand the hidden laws behind the economic and political social structure in which they found themselves: what made them tick, what caused the periodic crises of the stock market, the reasons behind unemployment, the connections between private ownership, competition, and class conflicts, the inexorable logic behind capitalist expansion, inflation, colonialism, and wars. More than this, their dialectical system enabled them to see, more than other thinkers of their time, that what they themselves were thinking was conditioned by the very age in which they lived, so that, in relation to Darwin, they could add that, rather than Darwin being a removed spectator, studying the animal world ‘objectively’, he was, in fact, coming to his studies with his mind already influenced, even moulded, by 19th-century capitalist ideas of progress, competition, individual self-preservation and aggression. Firstly, these ideas were making him distort his data to fit in with these preconceived ideas, and secondly, they observed that these were only one particular set of ideas which might just as well be replaced with another set of ideas (such as that of the maternal instinct, for caring and sharing, co-operation, and mutual self-help). Had he chosen to view the natural world with these ideas uppermost in his mind, he would have come to quite different conclusions about the ‘inevitable survival of the fittest’: after all, the baby mammal is entirely dependant on the assistance of its mother or feeding parent in order to survive.

What Marx and Engels were saying was that the ideas, beliefs and customs which people have do not spring from nowhere – they are the products of the kind of society in which the person finds himself or herself. If the society can be categorised as being predominantly individualistic, competitive, aggressive etc., then the ideas of the individuals growing up in such a society will be conditioned (not necessarily determined) by these aspects. Conversely, if the society could be categorised by caring and sharing, then these attitudes would most likely be found in the minds of its individual members – The individual is produced by the society into which he/she is born, but can, in turn, then go on to influence the way that society develops.

The Swiss linguistic scholar, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was the other key figure in the formation of what was to become known as Structuralism. Like the thinkers above, Saussure was concerned with analysing his subject – language – and discovering the hidden rules which governed it – the way meaning is communicated. His most famous work was only published posthumously, as the collated lecture notes of several of his pupils – The “General Course in Linguistics“. Here, he conceived of language as a system of mutually defining entities. Saussure had studied Sanskrit, English, French, Latin, and Greek and saw underlying all these languages certain common principles and underlying phonetic patterns. He clearly saw that language consisted of two basic aspects: the transitory and the persistent. These were like two axes of a graph along which a language could be studied in terms of the temporal and the spatial. Saussure named them Diachronic and synchronicDiachronic linguistics, or historical linguistics, is the study of how language changes through time.  Synchronic or general, linguistics is the study of a language at a particular time and space, like a cross-section chosen at a particular moment. The diachronic sees a language in its temporary and changing aspects, whilst a synchronic approach “freezes” its motion to concentrate on those aspects “in depth” which enable us to draw general conclusions and interrelationships. These two terms are particularly important in Structuralist thought, and can, for instance be applied to the study of anthropology or history – An approach to history which sees general laws, wide sweeping movements or a succession of events is diachronic, whereas an approach to history which analyses the particular details of a society at a given time and the interrelations between the different aspects, such as Marxism, would be synchronic. But the structures which such analyses highlight are never ‘eternal’: they ‘endure’ in time for more or less long periods – (as Braudel notes above). Structures too evolve, but there are always certain basic constituents, without which they could not be structures.

Another related distinction in language use which Saussure draws is that between Langue (or the generalised language used by a whole society or culture), and parole (or the individual speech used by a single member of the society). Langue refers to the ‘system’ or totality of a language stored in the ‘collective consciousness’, of which the grammar is a large part, as are the vocabulary and the lexicon. The “Langue” is made up of a full catalogue of all the elements of a language, together with all the rules for their combination. “Parole”, on the other hand, is the use that individuals make of the particular language they are born into. If “Langue” is a structure, then “Parole” is an event. Without the events, there would be no way we could investigate the structure, and without the structure the event would be meaningless. The two are mutually interdependent. The contrast and links between these two terms are everywhere in Structuralism. It is the contrast between the Code and the Message, or the contrast between the collective and the individual. Langue is inherently social :

“It is a fund accumulated by the members of the community through the practice of speech, a grammatical system existing potentially in every brain, or more exactly in the brains of a group of individuals, for the language is never complete in any single individual, but exists perfectly only in the collectivity.”

The most influential aspect of Saussure’s linguistic theory is his analysis of the relationship of language to the perceptible world: in a word the problem of meaning. He devises a three-part relationship between the perceived object and its linguistic Sign. The Sign is divided into two aspects, the sound and the sense. The sound or Signifier is the aspect of the sign which has its existence in the spoken (or read) word: ie the ‘Tree’ or ‘Arbre’ or ‘albero’ etc., depending on whatever language we are using. The Signified is the idea of the tree, or whatever object we are concerned with, in the physical world, the substantial thing (or referent) which exists independent of the name we give to it.

One important aspect which Saussure observes is that the Sign is arbitrary in nature. We could come up with any collection of sounds or symbols to represent the thing “tree” and it would make no difference to the physical object. It does not mind, so to speak, if we call it ‘a tree’ or “un albero”. This idea establishes that language is an autonomous realm, distinct from the real world of objects, to which it nevertheless relates by means of a system or structure of signs – a grammar of meaning. Language is like a separate scale which relates to reality as a whole thing rather than in its specific elements. More important than the various individual signs (which as we have seen are arbitrary in nature), are the differences between signs. It is through knowing one sign and then comparing one with another that meaning is communicated. (a sign means this, but also not-that)

Out of Saussure’s analysis developed a whole new area of study centred around meaning, called Semantics, and the related area of Semiotics which deals with the structure of the Sign system. Semiotics has to do with the word as a unit, semantics with the word as combined in a sentence to produce a meaning.

The combined influence of Saussure, Marx and Freud come together in the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose work I’ll be looking at in more detail in the next lecture. For now, a brief outline will be useful. Lévi-Strauss’s work focussed on the hidden rules which underlay, or the hidden meanings which made sense of, such things as tribal rites, marriage laws, and rights of inheritance. In this analysis, every aspect of a culture could be used to help understand how that society was structured. Ernest Gellner rather dryly remarked of Lévi-Strauss’s new science, that :

Structure was, for instance, whom one could marry, Culture was what the bride wore.”

In Lévi-Strauss’s “Structural anthroplogy”, insights into the specific nature of a society could equally well be gleaned from studying the particular forms of the dress. Its colour, shape and size, for example, were not arbitrary, but communicated specific “meanings” relevant to the hopes, laws, beliefs and aspirations of that society (white for purity etc.). Lévi-Strauss aims to make all such cultural manifestations intelligible. For they are all equally evidence of an unconscious logic whose actual forms may vary from culture to culture, but which, in their underlying structure, are common to all humanity. To this extent, Lévi-Strauss is working in an undialectical way, since he tends to the diachronic (or generalising view) rather than the specific or Synchronic. He is concerned to discover the secret rules which underpin all human society, rather than classifying the specific differences between say capitalist and non-capitalist societies. Lévi-Strauss was influenced by two further sources – the Prague school of linguistics under Roman Jakobson, and the Russian Formalist School of linguistics under Mikhail Bakhtin and Victor Propp.

Amongst the many issues that Lévi-Strauss deals with are art and the rôle its various forms have taken in differing societies over time. By analysing the rôle of the artist in various tribal societies, Lévi-Strauss comes to the following conclusions.

“For language to exist, there must be a group. It goes without saying that language… (being a constituent element..) is a group phenomenon; it is a constituent element of the group; it can only exist through the group, since language cannot be modified or disrupted at will.”

[Georges Charbonnier, “Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss”, 1961, reprinted London, 1971, pp. 58 & 60.]

“Art, so it seems to me, abandoned its function as a sign-system in Greek statuary, and then again in Italian painting of the Renaissance, But it might be claimed, up to a point, that the phenomenon is observable in embryonic form in other societies, and probably occurred in connection with Egyptian statuary, although to a lesser degree than in Greece, perhaps during a certain period in Assyrian statuary too, and lastly in pre-Columbian Mexico…I believe that writing played a very significant part in the evolution of art in the direction of the figurative, since writing taught men that signs could be used not only to signify the external world but also to apprehend it, to gain possession of it.”

[Georges Charbonnier, “Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss”, 1961, reprinted London, 1971, pp. 62-3]

The writer, again French, who has taken up these allusions to culture as a system of signs, communicating specific meanings about a given society, and significant in all its aspects, as well as being one of the more accessible of our thinkers is Roland Barthes. We will be looking at his work in lecture three, but it is worth outlining a few ideas here. Barthes is unquestionably the most popular practitioner of Semiotics as a political “reading” of society. His book “Mythologies” (1957) is a witty and acute analysis of various aspects of French cultural phenomena, from a neo-Marxian point of view. His semiology brings to light the abusive way that signs can be used by one section of society to maintain or assert power over another. He uses the term “myth” in a deliberately tendentious way to refer to such systematic abuses of the process of signification – the giving of meanings. To Barthes, there are no limits to the extent of this abuse;

“Anything, therefore, can be a Myth? I Believe it can, for the universe is infinitely suggestive. Every object in the world may pass from an enclosed, mute existence to a spoken state, open to appropriation by society, for no law, natural or not, forbids us to speak of things. A tree is a tree. But a tree spoken by Minou Drouet (a celebrated French child poet of the time) is no longer altogether a tree, but a decorated tree, adapted for a certain consumption, invested with literary frills, images, revolts, in short with a social usage which is added to the pure substance.”

An important aspect of Barthes’ theory, which he derives from the linguistic theory of Louis Hjelmslev, is that of the difference between  connotation  and denotation. A simple language denotes things in the real world by means of a system of signs which “carry” the meaning from the real world to the linguistic sign. “Connotations” (which is what Barthes concerned himself with) are the specific cultural usages of a particular sign, which carry, if you like, “additional” meanings. Thus, in the culture of Romanticism, the word “tree”, as well as denoting a fir or a beech or whatever, carries with it all sorts of connotations which convey extra or hidden meanings to do with loneliness, grandness, wildness, loftiness, nobility etc., which are not, strictly speaking, part of the literal or denotative meaning. It is precisely these hidden or extra meanings which Barthes was interested in pointing out. He asks, for example, what does a Boxing match really “mean” ? What complex messages are being conveyed by the structure which is a boxing match? Likewise, what message is conveyed in the design of a car, the way we eat or drink, the clothes that we wear etc.? As for Lévi-Strauss, all these aspects of life are culturally significant, and reveal aspects of social standing, power relationships, gender implications etc.. These are all ideas which the next wave of French thinkers, the Post-Structuralists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida take up and pursue further. Indeed, Post-structuralism can be seen as a development out of, as well as a reaction to, Structuralism, and again we will be looking at this later on in relation to Post-Modernism.

Semiotics, of the wide-ranging kind developed by Barthes, is fundamentally to do with ideologies and how they are transmitted throughout societies. Consequently, semioticians are extremely sensitive and alert to the richness of content in objects and aspects of culture which are otherwise quite familiar and unobtrusive. It is often precisely in such banal objects or turns of phrase that a whole tacit understanding is lodged. Their dislodging of it, or bringing it into the clear light of day, their de-mystifying it, runs parallel to Freud’s project of ‘opening up’ the repressed world of the unconscious to rational scrutiny, and Marx’s project, from where it immediately derives, of revealing the hidden or disguised workings of the material factors at play in an idea or belief. In this, Barthes is following the example of Mikhail Bakhtin, who set himself up as a sort of literary and cultural anthropologist, examining the societal meanings of cultural products like plays and novels. Ideologies, were for him, concrete and observable in the products of a culture:

“We are most inclined to imagine ideological creation as some inner process of understanding, comprehension, and perception, and do not notice that it in fact unfolds externally, for the eye, the ear, the hand. It is not within us, but between us”

As Saussure had noted, and indeed it is one of the fundamental observations of Structuralism: it is not the signs themselves which count but how they are interrelated. Meaning is derived from the interaction of signs – the ‘space’ between them so to speak – whether they be words, or brushstrokes on the canvas, the single frames of a movie, or the successive viewpoints of a sculpture – rather than the signs themselves.

The linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein draws analogous conclusions in his ‘Tractatus Logico Philosophicus‘ – a work which has had wide influence on both linguistic studies as well as many contemporary artists.

In this work, Wittgenstein observes, that “we make to ourselves pictures of facts”, in which “the fact that the elements of the picture are combined with one another in a definite way represents that the things are so combined with one another”. So that, “It is like a scale applied to reality”.   Meaning is conveyed through the application of this scale to reality. It is drawn along it so to speak, like a figure ascending a ladder from one floor to the attic. Once we have ascended, we can then ‘pull the ladder up’ and ascend to the upper world of understanding. Between the world of objects (or signifieds) and the world of signs there is this kind of spatial ‘no-man’s land’ like the space between an attic and the floor below when the ladder has been pulled up. We can only communicate meaning by analogy and metaphor, which puts a value on things by establishing difference. This too is an idea crucial to Derrida‘s analysis of meaning and signification, which we will come to later on.

An effect of this ‘gap’ between the sign and the signified is that meaning is never absolute. This may or may not be a problem, depending on one’s expectations. Wittgenstein, in his later “Philosophical Investigations“, discusses whether the “red” that I am seeing before me now is the same as the “red” that you see before you, and whether this has any importance. In other words, many philosophical problems can be redefined and satisfactorily shelved by realising that they are merely linguistic problems – they are phrased wrongly. On the age-old problem as to whether God exists, he replies, that asking the question is mistaken, because we have no means of coping with the information if we could ever attain it: “Why is it that dogs tell no lies? Is it because they are too honest? (i.e. no, it is because we are asking the wrong question).

Similarly, in Barthes, the thing about “connotations” is that they are always open to debate. Barthes may point out what he considers to be the hidden meaning of some cultural aspect such as wearing a hat or whatever, just as Freud may illuminate, often with startling multi-lingual puns and wild leaps of imagination, the links between a dream image or a neurotic symptom and some supposedly repressed aspect of reality, but if we look hard enough, or from another aspect, as for example the Italian philologist, Sebastiano Timpanaro, has done with regard to Freud’s “slips of the tongue”(parapraxes), [cf “The Freudian Slip”, Verso, London, 1976] we may well come up with quite different interpretations. In this sense, Barthes’ project is a hermeneutic one which relies heavily on personal intuition and poetic insights rather than on a coherent underlying argument; and Levi-Strauss’s attempt to define overall general rules applicable for all societies, runs the risk of re-mystifying rather than clarifying culture.

In a real sense, the Structuralists who stand up best are the first generation ones, Marx and Engels, whose system is both specific and material, as well as flexible and dialectical. Their message is that all things interrelate and that nothing can be understood in isolation, that individual phenomena are related and governed by collective rules, but also that history is always specific, and on the move: it can never be generalised or frozen.