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The crisis of representation of language and the sign
in post-structuralism

Section Index

  1. Reflections
  2. Means and Purpose
  3. Tradition
  4. Constructions
  5. Deconstruction
  6. Appendix - Bibliography, Endnotes

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1. Reflections

1.1. Language

Language and signs are the basis of all communication, the basis of all fiction, of all traditions, of all science and occupation. Without language we wouldn't be able to communicate - language is more than "just" what we usually call by this name; language exceeds the words of written and spoken language, furthermore containing gestures and connotations. With the help of our repertoire of signs and signifiers we are enabled to describe our environment; this repertoire of signs being what allows us to speak - the larger it is, the more complex structures we can name. But is that really such a one-sided relation? Does language result in naming the world the way "it is"?[1]

1.2. Reflexivity

Walter Abish's novel Alphabetical Africa reflects on the aspect of the repertoire of signs - chapter by chapter another letter of the alphabet is added as a beginning letter of a word; in the first chapter all words beginning with "a", in the second all words beginning with "b" are added, and so forth, until the development reverses again towards the end. The eloquence each new letter allows for increases until all the alphabet is used, but then it collapses again.

Africa alone as a starting point, as a beginning, a closure, a starter - everything but only an exclusive key issue, on the other hand, also other issues than only Africa[3b]: As soon as language is used contrary to common usage, as soon as it is being distorted, the means behind are revealed the more obviously. Every single word has to be fought for, each sense newly considered. And even if everything of poeisis can be used, the constructed issue as such cannot be fully approached, Africa remains a place, becoming, only fragmentarily, the scene for various actions. Even the alphabet alone is an arbitrary reckoning (even not regarding its order) - as it is limited to written language alone: Certain combinations of signs can very well be pronounced differently than possibly implied by the initial letter. But this is not the only arbitrariness; not only in the difference between written fixation and acoustic realization lies a construction. A general dissolution, a "general reorientation[2]" of ideas constructed throughout the centuries leads to a crisis of representation of language and the sign in post-structuralism:

The writing and reading of texts, as well as the processes by which they are circulated and categorized, analyzed and taught, are being reconstrued as historically determined and determining modes of cultural work; apparently autonomous aesthetic and academic issues are being reunderstood as inextricably though complexly linked to other discourses and practices - such linkages constituting the social networks within which individual subjectivities and collective structures are mutually and continuously shaped.[3]

2. Means and Purpose

2.1. Signifier - Signified

Communication and thinking refer to experienced or learned correlations and structures, to terms and names which are assigned unambiguously and can be recalled like an equation. But even more - each assigning signifiers and signified items differently, nuances arising from personal experience, perspective and linguistic competence - and through language itself. Signifier and signified are being separated artificially[4]. Each language has its own rules, own perspectives: The mere assignation of gender to each object or person, as it is done e.g. in Latin, German or French, cannot be performed in English, or only in a limited way. Why is it that in German "das Mädchen" (the girl) is neuter, "die Tasse" (the cup) feminine?

Originally probably even available backgrounds aren't noticed anymore or have been lost. In language, only imperfect images are left, traces, links assigning one or several concepts to a sign[5].

2.2. Notations

Whatever meaning is retained in a sign cannot be reconstructed neither without some effort nor completely or excessively - for each approaching a term we again nead linguistic means, and be it just pointing a finger. For not only are the linguistic interpretations of reality highly subjective, that is furthermore equally true for our visual and other perception. Not everybody sees the same things in a certain object, not everybody links a certain term to the same connotations - yet still we claim to being able to do just this: To describe reality "as it is".

Language manifests itself in the use of signifiers. We make use of a signifying system in relying on conventions mostly having developed over centuries; conventions not only regarding to phonetics or grammar but relying on the structure and the concept behind the sign. It's a question of tradition[6].

3. Tradition

3.1. History

When we speak of language we mean fiction - well, in fact we mean to describe reality, but is that actually possible? To what extent does a linguistic sign or a collection of linguistic signs, a text, supply us with an unambiguous, original account of reality? An account being objective and above all doubts, indeed, in the truest sense true[7]? Do letters alone suffice to describe Africa, or pictures, sounds, smells? Are not all of these possibilities of perception bound to an individual mind being able to grasp and describe diverse events and conditions only individually, subjectively? Even form alone influences contents and proposition of a text[8]. Each historiography is narration, is fiction - may it be based upon facts or upon something coming close to facts, but through the necessary use of language and narration it is subject to modification, to individualization - tendencies, preferences, interpretations of the writer or of tradition manifesting themselves:

It is only from our knowledge of the subsequent history of Western Europe that we can presume to rank events in terms of their world-historical significance, and even then that significance is less world historical than simply Western European, representing a tendency of modern historians to rank events in the record hierarchically from within a perspective that is culture-specific, not universal at all[9].

Often a seemingly gigantic piece of work also may easily conceal the lack of solidity of the source material[10].

3.2. Authorship

What does it mean if the term "individuality" is applied here? Does it mean that a writer or historiographer would also be the author, the creator? Can it be assumed that unique ideas and imaginations and interpretations can be created just like that? Or haven't we rather to give much more credit to external influences than before?

Yet alone the scientific necessity of providing a bibliography demonstrates that sole creatorship is only hardly supportable. Parents, relatives, friends, groups, school, university, books, movies, television, the media - an abundance of various and different ideas flowing into one's brain, then processed by it, perhaps considered original what is only a synthesis of previous utterances:

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture[11].

The author becomes a scriptor, only the writing or having written authority[12].

4. Constructions

4.1. Categories

Not only to ideas and thoughts can this drifting-apart, diverging, discursive contemplation be extended. Wherever artificial borders are erected by science, wherever they have to be erected, the respective subjects and areas of study flow into each other - physics, chemistry, biology may concentrate on specific areas but cannot be separated on closer inspection[13] - it's like in an ecosystem: Even the tiniest constituent, be it a water flea, has its influence on the entire system as a whole. This extended view of things is even supported by more recent physical theories[14].

The discourse as a basis of scientific reflection may not necessarily allow instantaneous and immediate knowledge and experience, but it constitutes a more realistic view of reality, a self-reflexive form of thinking - becoming much more aware of one's means and limitations. For this, however, it needs a departure from terms like "tradition" or "evolution"[15], yet alone because science itself is subject to change over time and cannot be considered a continuous, static object [16].

4.2. Delimination

If we consider structures of society, of each society and each thinking, on closer inspection structures will be noticed that often were or are being denoted as being natural, and whose sustaining up to then would have always been guarded and sponsored by state or society; structures guarding the difference between man and woman, between races, between classes, between nations, between weltanschauungen, between religions. These structures far too often are based upon traditions, upon historical conditions which at a certain time might have made it necessary to draw certain borders, borders which often were determined politically or economically.

A separation into classes, into citizens, non-citizens and slaves existed already in antiquity and early history, a separation based on capital and political associations which was convenient and allowed the state's conscience be eased. The use of the "race" term in combination with slavery "progressed" in more modern times, making it even easier to enslave human beings - a "natural" opposition had been constructed. Equally, although by far indescribable, are the Holocaust and "ethnic cleansing" as well as "purges" based upon these constructions. Biologically more or less existing differences or special properties, or just the belonging to a different group, form the basis for organized discrimination, which not at all cannot be considered natural any more.

The separation of the sexes may not have manifested in such cruel chains of individual events, but nevertheless is it constructed from biological differences to which further, non-biological dissimilarities are ascribed[17]. The separation is further perfected by canonization and sanctioning. Non-womanish occupations and functions are just being defined, but by whom? We have been made familiar with role types and -schemes in upbringing and education by the means of culture and the society we live in. But instead of overcoming this separation, it is being strengthened by underlining it through quotas and coercive measures.

And even the centuries-old usual presence of deliminations and constructivity is again by some considered evidence for its naturalness, of each kind of discrimination. And the language used for justification is often merely euphemistic and, just like the constructed recording of the events themselves, fictive and unreliable[18]. Is there a context in which we could understand what really happened, what's really true? A new understanding for these constructions has also become necessary in literary history:

Two decades of unprecedented scholarship and criticism have excavated lost authors for our reconsideration, delineated literary traditions of which we had been previously unaware, and raised probing questions about the very processes by which we canonize, valorize, and select the texts to be remembered. In the wake of all the new information about the literary production of women, Blacks, Native Americans, ethnic minorities, and gays and lesbians; and with new ways of analyzing popular fiction, non-canonical genres, and working-class writings, all prior literary histories are rendered partial, inadequate, and obsolete[19].

5. Deconstruction

5.1. Structures

Starting out from the rather optimistic assumption that we might gain a certain understanding for the backgrounds and courses of events behind the constructions, this can only happen through an analysis of the structures themselves, always being aware that through the necessary implementation of language and other constructivist means and mediators only an incomplete picture can be drawn. But even the attempt alone at developing an understanding for something which in its entirety may be ungraspable, this attempt alone it is which can create a sensibility for something we formerly had accepted as given and natural:

This is how deconstruction works: by showing that what was prior and privileged in the old hierarchy (for instance, metaphor and speech) can just as easily seem secondary, the deconstructor causes the formerly privileged term to exchange properties with the formerly devalued one. Causes become effects and (d)evolutions become origins, but the result is neither the destruction of the old order or hierarchy nor the construction of a new one. It is, rather, deconstruction[20].

This deconstruction, which is not intended to be a destruction, works like a lawsuit: facts (or what we have constructed as facts) are inspected regarding to their reliability and correctness and justification. The defendant is the past, are traditions and history. The prosecutor is the present, are social deficiencies and problems, not yet overcome tragedies and crimes, unsolved problems and mysteries of science and philosophy and religion. The aim is - like it is with all philosophy - the future.

Thus yet another construction is partly visible: The construction of time itself, of cause and effect. Past and future are always present in present time, be it through remembrances or portents or wishes. The future motivates us, it can be its own cause, an again not-original origin as it is rooted in a sequence of causalities again connected to others and so forming so many variables that it is impossible to disentangle this web of arguments. Does this mean that each deconstruction eventually has to falter? Or doesn't it rather mean that we have recognized that not anymore everything is within our reach? A taking-back of expectations, a reductio ad minimum - philosophy may seem smaller, but it will do more justice to the realities and to the individuality of a constructed world:

... Post-Structuralism [..] uses linguistics to argue that all such orders are founded on an essential endemic disorder in language and in the world that can never be mastered by any structure or semantic code that might assign it a meaning[21].

5.2. Conclusion

I have started with Walter Abish's "Alphabetical Africa", a book reflecting on language, on the sign, quasi in the form of a literary case study. Language and writing are in a crisis of representation because of a growing awareness that - as shown above - both are supported by artificial constructions. This chain of recognition, beginning with self-reflexivity, leading to discursive contemplation and a reflection on language itself, demonstrates the complexity of a topic which post-structuralism has come to be aware of. Through this, it is not language or writing which are supposed to be abolished, but it is - like in any kind of philosophy - an attempt to come closer to reality, be it in philosophy or literary criticism. The effect of latter approach would be a more thorough but also a more complicated analysis, not any more interpretation, of a literary work.

A character is either 'real' or 'imaginary'? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile. You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it ... fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf - your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens[22].

6. Appendix

6.1. Works Cited

  • Walter Abish. Alphabetical Africa. New York: New Directions Book, 1974.
  • Roland Barthes. "The Death of the Author." Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. 142-148.
  • Jacques Derrida. Die Schrift und die Differenz (1967). Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1976.
  • Jacques Derrida. "Die differance" (1972). Postmoderne und Dekonstruktion. hg. Peter Engelmann. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1990. 76-113.
  • Michel Foucault, "Die Einheiten des Diskurses" und "Die diskursiven Formationen". Die Archäologie des Wissens (1969), Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1973. 33-59.
  • John Fowles. The French Lieutenant's Woman. London: Pan Books, 1977.
  • Annette Kolodny. "The Integrity of Memory: Creating a New Literary History of the United States." American Literature 57.2 (May 1985). 291-305.
  • Louis Montrose, "Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture." Literary Theory: An Anthology. ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 777-78.
  • Ross C Murfin. "What is deconstruction?" Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. Ed. Peter G. Beidler. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism Series. Ed. Ross C Murfin. Boston, N.Y.: Bedford-St. Martin's 1995. 179-192
  • Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. "The Class of 1968 - Post-structuralism par lui-même." Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 333-357.
  • Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. "Feminist Paradigms." Literary Theory: An Anthology. ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 527-532.
  • Hayden White. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." The Content and the Form. Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 1-10.

6.2. Endnotes

[1] Derrida. Die Schrift und die Differenz. 17f
[2] Montrose 777
[3] ibd.
[3b]It is impossible to translate the original German version of my text here in which I played on the use of the letter "a" in Abish's book:

Afrika allein aber als Ausgangspunkt, als Anfang, als Abschluß, als Aufhänger - aber alles andere als ausschließlicher Angelpunkt, andererseits auch andere Angelegenheiten als allein Afrika:

[4] Derrida. Die Schrift und die Differenz. 425f
[5] Derrida. "Die différance" 104ff
[6] Derrida. "Die différance" 108ff
[7] Derrida. Die Schrift und die Differenz. 15f
[8] White 2ff
[9] White 9f
[10] One example for the influence of the writer's perspective on the contents is formed by the historiographical writings of Mommsen on Roman and Droysen on Greek antiquity - each presupposes the necessity of forming a nation state in antiquity, although nations in today's understanding didn't exist at that time. However, the topic of nation states was of some interest for 19th century Germany.
[11] Barthes 146
[12] Barthes 145
[13] Foucault 48ff
[14] chaos theory, quantum nechanics, string theory, grand unification theory (cf. Stephen W. Hawking. A Brief History of Time. N.Y.: Bantam 1988)
[15] Foucault 33f
[16] Foucault 55ff
[17] Rivkin and Ryan, "Feminist Paradigms" 530
[18] Derrida. Die Schrift und die Differenz. 21ff
[19] Kolodny 291
[20] Murfin 186
[21] Rivkin and Ryan. The Class of 1968. 334
[22] Fowles 87

August 13th, 1998 / February 23rd 2000 (English version)

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