In the Beginning There Was the Word, and the Word Was Really Complicated

A reconstruction of Saussure's sign by Wendell Piez

A reconstruction of Saussure’s sign by Wendell Piez

As a writer, I am greatly concerned with the written word. And, as a writer, I am greatly troubled by it. Our system of language, our system of signs, is terribly inconclusive. The sign itself is simple enough. On the one side you have the signifier, the word itself, written or spoken. On the other, you have the signified –the referent –the thing itself. The problem is that when you look at it closely, it falls apart. It seems that nothing in the universe can stand firm under enough scrutiny. Is this a fact of reality, though? or just human limitation?

The first problem we find with a closer look at the sign, is that it is arbitrary. There is nothing that actually ties the word ‘tree’ to the concept of ‘tree’ or the thing itself. We could have just as easily chosen ‘moose’ as a signifier for the word tree. The the letters that make it up, the sound those letters make when spoken –none of it has anything to do with a tree. It is simply consensus that allows for us to think of a tree when someone ‘tree.’ A collective agreement constructing our linguistic reality.

The second problem arises with abstract concepts or objects without an agreed upon significance, such as race and gender. Here the signifier is what Claude Lévi-Strauss called a ‘floating signifier.’ Or to use his words “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified.” Some words have no agreed upon definition. One person’s understanding of the word could be vastly different from another’s. Because these signs are then open to interpretation, they lose all meaning. Because they can mean anything, they mean nothing.

The third, fourth, fifth, and so on(th) problems come when we welcome postmodernism and Jacques Derrida into the discussion. Here we find the claim that all signifiers, not just those attached to obvious abstractions, are floating. Words, or signs of any kind, never point directly to a referent. When I say bicycle, you think of a blue and shiny frame with curved handle-bars. I think of a rickety old squeaking thing with rusted handlebars. Or, we could take the name of a big corporation for example, “Corporation X.” It points simultaneously to the CEO as a figurehead, the many employees, the area of influence, the mission, the location, the wealth. More signs, more signifiers, more referents. There is no conclusion in the utterance or writing of a word, only constant, floating referral.

How then do we come to name or define things? When does four legs and a slab make a table? If I take a leg away, is it still a table? It probably isn’t what you think of when I say table. It certainly isn’t what you would find in a dictionary. Of course there are tables with three legs, or even one large central leg. So it cannot be the legs. So, if I take all the legs away, that shouldn’t matter. But it does. Maybe it is in the purpose of the thing? A raised, flat surface upon which we can safely place things. A desk is a table, then. No. So a table is not a desk. A chair could be a table. But it isn’t. So a table is not a chair. A table is sometimes made of wood, but it is not a tree. When did the tree stop being a tree? When it died? No? At what point in its slow decomposition does it cross the threshold of ‘treeness,’ and become something else?  Certainly the resulting soil is not a tree.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, User:Le vin blanc

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, User:Le vin blanc

And so we go, on and on and on. Never actually getting to what constitutes ‘tableness,’ and only ever deciding what it is not. Defining it by negative isolation. Coming only to see some vague shape of table surrounded by endless signifiers — floating in perpetual referral –which would themselves fall apart under similar scrutiny. In this light, nothing can exist in isolation, because it only the very existence of other things that can define it. Furthermore, nothing can exist without language. The act of naming and defining and categorizing the world is not an act of organization then, but an act of creation, which is why, perhaps ‘The Word’ plays such a significant role in Christian mythology. The languages of science or of mathematics are not inherent to the world, awaiting our discovery –we dressed the naked world in them, and now that is the world we see, the world we know. Surely there were different ways to define it; other forms of categorization would have done just as well as this one.

So, what does this mean for a writer? Well, I guess it means were in the business of lying, of spinning yarns, if you will, so that instead of chaos, readers find harmony. We perpetuate the delusion that if we put enough pieces together, we will see a completed puzzle with a pretty picture of the universe painted on top of it. We build great monuments with arbitrary blocks. We say things as if they inhere to the world, but they don’t. These words here, shapeless words all of them, insist upon a truth that doesn’t exist. Yet here I write, and there you read. Suckers all of us. Devout believers in a reality that makes sense. A faithful congregation of the deaf and blind and dumb in collective, reassuring, anesthetizing denial. I suppose denial is an essential human trait. After all, it gives us all that we have.

Imagine, before you go, a world without language. Thoughts themselves are linguistically constructed, so you wouldn’t have those either –not like your used to. It would be a bright, loud, terrifying day. Nothing at all distinguishable from anything else. It is words, and our perceived definition of them, that allow us to sanely walk down a street and perceive ‘things’ as separate from other ‘things.’ Each word is a small, narrative fiction that allows us to ‘know.’ The very picture of reality was not cosmically painted, it was written, it was uttered. Not by God in some magical act of creation, but by man in a necessary act of delusion and survival. We crave reason. We crave sense. We need them. What better way to make sense of the infinite than naming every part of it that we can? We slowly, through discovery, the development of new areas of study, and the subsequent increase in our collective (and personal) vocabulary, bleed the world of it of its uncertainty  –defining and categorizing every shadowed corner we come across.

So, I guess we’re all writers. Pretty powerful ones too. Not so much in the business of lying, perhaps, but rather keepers of a fragile peace. It is metaphor after all, not truth, that saves us from the absurd. Fiction, not fact, that lets us sleep at night.

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I owe this post almost entirely to this one on David Yerle Writes. His tackles much more than mine, and from a very fascinating perspective.

This was a very basic look into semiology and linguistics, the rabbit hole is endless really, and I encourage you –if you find this topic interesting –to read further. Below are some articles to get you going. Please, leave your thoughts. There are some glaring omissions here I am sure, and I am always interested in seeing just how extensively I have butchered my own thoughts.

Elements of Semiology — Roland Barthes

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jacques Derrida (jump to Differánce if you’ve not got much time)

Semiotics for Beginners