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Friday, November 29, 2013

The Linear Nature of the Signifier; Language as Organised Thought Coupled with Sound; Linguistic value from a conceptual view point (from the view of Signified)

The Linear Nature of the Signifier

The signifier has the following characteristics.

a.     -  It represents a span

b.      -The span is measurable in a single dimension (it is a line)

The arbitrary nature of sign (Principle II) has always been neglected by the linguists due to its over simplicity. However, this concept is a fundamental and its consequences are ineffable. It is equally important as the I principle (sign, signifier & signified). There are visual and auditory signifiers. Their elements are presented in a succession and they form a line. Thus we can talk about the linear nature of a signifier.

In contrast to the visual signifiers which are multidimensional the auditory signifiers are single-dimensional. The only auditory dimension is the dimension of time.

Language as Organised Thought Coupled with Sound

Language has two elements in it. They are ideas and sounds. Thought in itself is shapeless and indistinct. It is universally expected that without the help of the signs we cannot distinguish between two ideas. Thought is vague without language. There are no pre-existing ideas and nothing is distinct without the appearance of language.

When we are comparing between thought and ideas, we find that sound is neither more fixed nor more rigid than thought. Sound is not a mould into which an idea should fit. Language must be seen in its totality (of both thought/idea and sound).

Language can also be compared with a sheet of paper. Thought is the front side and sound is the back side. They are inseparable. One cannot cut the front without cutting the back. In language we can neither divide sound from thought nor thought from sound. When thought is separated from sound, the by-products are pure psychology or pure phonology.

Linguistic value from a conceptual view point (from the view of Signified)

The value of a word is not a simple concept. When we think about the value of a word, its capacity of standing for an idea comes to our mind. This is not complete. What about the synonyms? There can be two words standing for the same idea.


Value of a linguistic term or a word does not mean the idea conveyed by the word. It is different from the signification of the linguistic term. Value is one element of signification, and signification of a linguistic term depends on value.

Signification - it is understood as the counterpart of the sound image. Also, one sign is a counterpart of other signs. Then, it is not possible for value to be the signification of the sound-image alone (because all these elements are counterparts).

Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term is established from the simultaneous presence of the others (diagram). The value of each sign can be determined by either comparing it with similar terms, or by contrasting it with dissimilar terms.


All kinds of values (even for things outside of language) are governed by the same principle. They are made up of a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which you are trying to find the value of (exchange value, like how you can exchange a cup of coffee for 10 rupees) and a similar thing that can be compared to the thing you are trying to find the value of (like how you can compare 10 rupee with five rupee, or some other form of currency).


 Similarly, a word can be exchanged with something dissimilar (something which is not a word), like an idea AND a word can be compared with something similar (another word) - The value of a word is not fixed if only one of these criteria are met.


Hence, as a part of a system, words have both signification (relationship between concept and sound image) and value (that can be exchanged and compared).


Within a same language, words that express related ideas limit each other reciprocally. This means that when words that convey related ideas or meanings are used, we understand the differences between these words because these words draw limitation for each other. Example, the words happiness, joy and bliss - all represent a related idea. These words also help us understand that happiness is different joy and bliss, and so are the other two different from each other. We understand this difference because we understand the RECIPROCAL limitation put by each word on the others. Value of a word depends on the value of other words.


All these rules apply not only to words, but to larger elements in a particular language too, like grammatical entities.


Preexisting ideas are not found in all systems of languages, but values are. Concepts are defined by their differential relations with other concepts in the system - Understanding one concept by contrasting it with other concepts. The most precise characteristics of concepts are "being what others are not".


He concludes by saying that initially, there is no relation between a signifier and a signified, but this relationship is established only after the value of the concept (signified) is determined by comparing it with other similar values. Without comparing of these similar values, Signification (the relationship between signifier and signified) cannot exist.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Values and Relations in Language

This document highlights certain notions that Saussure elaborates upon in Course in General Linguistics. The document is constructed based on the reading of the text and classroom interactions of first year M.A. English students at Christ University, Bangalore.


Chapter IV: Sections 3: Linguistic Value from a Material Viewpoint.


The Word: The word is not the sound alone but the phonic differences that make it possible to distinguish this word from all others.


The focus of this definition lies in difference and it suggests that signification is primarily the non-coincidence of different segments of language.  The differential aspect of signification is thus correlative to the arbitrariness of signification.


The conclusion that Saussure arrives here is that Signs function based on their relative position in the language system and not due to any intrinsic value.


Incorporeal Language: The material element of language is only secondary. The example that Saussure provides to justify this statement is that of the value of a coin. He says that a coin has value not because of the material used to make the coin but according to the amount stamped upon it and according to its use inside or outside a political boundary.


Thus, the linguistic signifier is constituted not by its material substance but by the difference that separates its sound-image from all others.


The Written Sign:

·            The sign used in language is arbitrary. That is to say that the written sign 't' has no relation to the sound /t/, this relation is purely arbitrary.

·            The value of the letters is purely negative and differential, the only requirement is that the written sign for 't' should not be confused in script for the signs for 'l' or 'd' etc.


Chapter IV: Sections 4: The Sign Considered in its Totality.


Until this section Saussure seems to be making the claim that in language are only differences. In this section he presents the view that when the sign is considered in its totality there is no difference, only distinction or opposition.


I.e. although both the signifier and the signified are purely differential terms when considered separately, their combination is a positive fact.





 Signifier                        =    Differential + Negative

 Signified                       =    Differential + Negative

 Signifier + Signified   =    Oppositional   +  Positive



Chapter V: Sections 1: Syntagmatic and Associative Relations.


In a language state everything is based on Relations. These are of two classes that correspond to two forms of our mental activity. The two classes are Syntagmatic and Associative.


Inside Discourse, Words acquire relations based on the linear nature of language because they are chained together, ruling out the possibility of pronouncing two elements simultaneously.


Combinations supported by linearity are Syntagms.  In Syntagm a term acquires its value based on its position in the chain.

The Syntagmatic relation is in presentia  (present)


Outside Discourse, Words acquire relations of a different kind, one that it based on the association of common facts in memory. This results in groups marked by diverse relations

The Associative relation is in absentia (in a potential mnemonic series).


Extract of Course in General Linguistics from the Norton Anthology.

A, Vijayganesh. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 26 Nov. 2013. 

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present.Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Web.

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 26 November 2013. Prepared by Shyam Nair)


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Place of language in the Facts of Speech



Ferdinand de Saussure is effectively the founder of modern linguistics and of structuralism. The predominant modes of analyzing language prior to Saussure were historical and philological. He undertook a synchronic approach that saw language as a structure that could be studied at a given point of time in its totality and entirety. He differentiates language from speech facts by listing out the characteristics of language.


Saussure makes a distinction between language and speech facts and not between language and speech. The basic difference is that speech facts are finite and speech is infinite. Speech has infinite possibilities. Speech facts are those that are already available and spoken.


Saussure lists out the following characteristics of language.


Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts.


Saussure mentions that language can be localized in the limited site of the speaking circuit. He states that language is based on an association between an auditory image and a concept. The auditory image is associated with a concept. Language is the social side of speech, which cannot be modified or created by an individual. It requires a collective social approval. In order to understand the functioning of language an individual must serve as an apprentice. It is a gradual process just like how a child assimilates language in a moderate manner.


Language, unlike speaking, is something that we can study separately.


Any scientific study would entail one to separate certain things. In the case of economy, which is governed mainly by the respective power structure, the power structure is never taken into consideration when the economy is studied.

Likewise in the case of dead languages that are no longer spoken the respective linguistic components of that language can be assimilated. Saussure mentions that other elements of speech must be dispensed with for the scientific study of language.

Whereas speech is heterogeneous, language, as defined is homogenous.


Saussure assesses the union of meaning and sound images. He states that both the concept and sound images are psychological. Language is homogenous to the extent when it is objectified or externalized. When the objects are objectified they become homogenous.


Language is concrete.


Even though linguistic signs are basically psychological they are not abstractions. They are the creations of the human brain and of our collective consciousness. Language consists of associations, which requires collective approval.

Linguistic signs are tangible. Here Saussure establishes a clear distinction between language and speech facts. It is possible to reduce the linguistic signs to conventional written symbols whereas it would be impossible to provide detailed photographs about the act of speaking. The pronunciation of even the smallest word consists of an infinite number of muscular movements that could be identified and presented visually with great difficulty. Each of the sound images can be broken down into phonemes and these can be presented in the written form. In this way language becomes the storehouse of sound images and writing becomes the tangible form of those sound images.


Saussure builds his theory on language. He indicates that one reaches language through speech and writing.




Extract of Course in General Linguistics from the Norton Anthology.


Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 19 Nov. 2013. 


Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Web.


(Notes of the lecture delivered on 19 November 2013. Prepared by Akhil Scaria)


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Introduction to Ferdinand de Saussure and the Characteristics of Language

This short essay will begin with a brief introduction to Ferdinand de Saussure. Following which, the concepts of langue and parole will be introduced. The characteristics of language proposed by Saussure in "The Object of Linguistics", Course in General Linguistics will be briefly explored.


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is considered the founder of modern linguistics, and through his contributions to linguistics, structuralism as well. Born into an erudite Swiss family and having studied in the universities of Berlin and Leipzig; he taught courses in Gothic, Old German, Latin and Persian in Paris and the University of Geneva. He later on took up courses in historical and comparative linguistics, due to lack of teaching faculty. Saussure always prepared fresh notes for every lecture, and it was in the posthumous compilation of lecture notes by his colleagues into Course in General Linguistics (1916), that Saussure's work proved to be foundational to a number of disciplines, particularly Linguistics and Structuralism.


At the outset, it is important to define two important dimensions proposed by Saussure- langue and parole. While the former refers to 'language as a structured system grounded on certain rules', the latter is 'the specific acts of speech or utterance which are based on those rules' (Habib 634). In opposition to the approach adopted by traditional linguistics and philology, Saussure suggested that the langue, and not the parole must be the object of scientific description and investigation.

The following are the characteristics of language proposed by Saussure:

        i.            Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts.

      ii.   something that can be studied separately.

    iii.            Whereas speech is heterogenous, language as defined, is homogenous.

    iv.            Language is concrete.

Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts.

Saussure establishes that language is based an association on an auditory image with a concept. This association is based on a shared consensus, and cannot be modified by individuals within the linguistic system. At this particular instance, Saussure is not referring to the coining of new words and expressions, rather the underlying structure that governs the use of language, langue. Thus, despite the infinite possibilities in speech and the multiplicity of utterances in speech acts (parole), the underlying langue or structure, or language, remains well-defined, and therefore homogenous (refer to point iii.), in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts. something we can study separately.

As mentioned above, Saussure suggested that the study of langue should be the basis of the study of language. This is because if one was to use parole or a set of speech facts to study a language, one would also need to study the contexts and factors due to which the utterances were made. Going by this argument of ignoring the 'other elements of speech' for the scientific study of language, Saussure suggests that even dead languages may be studied.

Language is concrete.

Despite being an arbitrary connection between an auditory image and a concept, Saussure believes that the linguistics signs are not abstractions, since they are the productions of the human brain and a collective consciousness. Each of the sound images can be broken down into phonemes, and all of these may be represented in the written form. According to Saussure, it is this aspect of language that not only makes it concrete, but also permits it to be described and represented in metalingual texts such as dictionaries and grammar books.




Extract of Course in General Linguistics from the Norton Anthology.


A, Vijayganesh. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 18 Nov. 2013. 

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Web.


(Notes of the lecture delivered on 18 November 2013. Prepared by Kevin Frank Fernandes)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Introduction to Structuralism

Structuralism is an intellectual movement which began in France in the 1950's and is seen in the works of anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss. Simon Blackburn says "structuralism is the belief that phenomenon of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture" (Wikipedia on structuralism).  One of the most basic ideas of structuralism is the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation, they have to be seen in the larger structures they are part of. So structuralism seeks the inter relationships through which meaning is produced. "In the literary theory structuralist criticism relates literary texts to a larger structure which may be a particular genre, a range of inter-textual connections, a model of universal narrative structure or a system of recurrent pattern or motif"(Wikipedia on structuralism in literary theory and criticism). Each text has a structure in it. So everything written has certain rules that govern the structure. In short a structuralist is to find out the fundamental units on which the text is constituted and the rules that govern these units.

            An example to explain this is the study of fairy tales by Vladimer Propp. He found that fairy tales have, 'after an initial situation', 31 functions irrespective of languages. So when we see the construction princess – Stepmother - prince it brings to our mind the story of Cinderella and snow white. Both these stories have the same structure where princess and prince represent goodness stepmother represent evil. Since the prince and princess represent goodness a rule that govern the structure evolves that they must marry together.        

            Another example is the study of Judith Butler on Greek mythology of Oedipus. She has found a structure in this myth. She brings to our attention three characters, King Laius, Oedipus and Antigone. All these three had some illegal relations. King Laius had an illegal relation to a young boy. Oedipus has married his mother and Antigone daughter of Oedipus has buried her brother against the decree of the King out of her illegitimate love towards her brother. The society does not promote the illegitimate relation of man to man, illegitimate relation of parent to child and illegitimate relation between siblings. This illegitimate relation brought disaster to their family and the city. The rule that govern this structure is that the society allows only heterosexual relation. So in a structuralist approach there is a movement from the interpretation of individual texts to understand larger abstract structures that contain them.

            Structuralism originated with a heavy dependence on Aristotelian science and 19th century science which tried to find out the building blocks of science by dividing atoms into subatomic patterns that is by going deep into its structures. Like that the structuralist also tried to understand the building blocks of language and found that phoneme and sememe are the foundations of language.  



Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd. New Delhi: Viva Books, 2012. Print.

Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 11 Nov. 2013. 

Wikipedia contributors. "Structuralism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia. 02 Nov 2013.

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 11 November. Prepared by JobinT.James)


Monday, November 11, 2013

An Introduction to Liberal Humanism

Liberal humanism can be defined as a philosophical and literary movement in which man and his capabilities are the central concern. It can also be defined as a system of historically changing views that recognizes the value of the human being as an individual and his right to liberty and happiness.
Liberal humanism has its roots at the beginning of English studies in the early 1800's and became fully articulated between 1930 and 1950. It was attacked by theories such as Marxism and Feminism beginning in the 1960's. In 1840, F.D. Maurice argued that the study of English literature connects readers to what is "fixed and enduring" in their own national identity. Liberal humanism inspired a scientific, rational world view that placed the knowing individual at the center of history, and viewed that history as the progress of Western thought. It served as the catalyst for the modern world's reliance on individualism and belief in a common human nature, scientific rationality, and the search for truth as universal knowledge and certainty in the world. The study of Liberal Humanism finds meaning within the text itself, without elaborate processes of placing it in contexts. It  detaches itself from its context and age; in isolation without any prior knowledge, prejudice or ideological ideas about the text.
There are some aspects to liberal humanism that have been made into what is called the 'ten tenets'. They are invisible guidelines literary critics use when reading a text. It is said that " they can only be brought to the surface by a conscious effort of will." (Peter Barry).

The ten tenets of liberal humanism are:
  • Good literature is timeless, transcendent and speaks to what is constant in human nature
  • Literary text contains its own meaning (not in subordinate reference to a sociopolitical, literary-historical, or autobiographical context)
  • Text therefore studied in isolation without ideological assumptions or political conditions—goal of close verbal analysis to 'see the object as in itself it really is' (Matthew Arnold pace Kant)
  • Human nature unchanging—continuity valued over innovation
  • Individuality as essence securely possessed by each 'transcendent subject' distinct from forces of society, experience, and language
  • Purpose of literature to enhance life in a non-programmatic (non-propagandistic) way
  • Form and content fused organically in literature
  • 'Sincerity' resides within the language of literature, noted by avoidance of cliché or inflated style so that the distance/difference between words and things is abolished
  • 'Showing' valued over 'telling'—concrete enactment better than expository explanation
  • Criticism should interpret the text unencumbered by theorizing, by preconceived ideas—must trust instead to direct, empirical, sensory encounter text (Lockean legacy)
The  key critics in history of criticism: Aristotle, Sidney, Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley. Shelley anticipates Russian formalists' emphasis on 'defamiliarization'; for Shelley, poetry "strips the veil of familiarity from the world" his criticism also anticipates Freudian notion of mind made up of conscious and unconscious elements. Works of George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Henry James also played major roles. Arnold feared with decline of common belief in religion that society needed literature to enable the middle classes debased by materialism and philistinism to recognize "the best that has been known and thought in the world" via canon of great works—goal to attain pure, disinterested knowledge, and employ past touchstones to evaluate present works. Eliot's idea of poetic 'impersonality' expressed in "Tradition and the Individual Talent"—anti-Romantic sense of tradition speaking through and transmitted by the poet.

Recurrent ideas in critical theory:
1. Many notions that we habitually regard as fixed and reliable essences (gender identity, individual self-hood, literature itself) are fluid, unstable, socially constructed, contingent, provisional categories upon which no overarching absolute truths can be established.

2. All thinking affected and largely determined by ideological commitments—no mode of inquiry is disinterested, not even one's own (Barry notes that this premise introduces risk of relativism that may undercut one's argument).

3. Language conditions and limits what we see and all reality is a linguistic/textual construct

4. All texts are webs of contradiction with no final court of appeals to render judgment

5. Distrust of grand, totalizing theories/notions, including notion of "great books" that are somehow identifiably great regardless of a particular sociopolitical context; likewise, concept of a "human nature" that transcends race, gender , class is untenable, and can be shown to have the effect of marginalizing other categories of identification/affiliation when some general "human nature" is invoked, appealed to.

Finally, one can conclude that:
  • Politics is pervasive,
  • Language is constitutive,
  • Truth is provisional,
  • Meaning is contingent,
  • Human nature is a myth.
A, Vijayganesh. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 08 Nov. 2013. 

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 8 November. Prepared by Angelo Savio Pereira)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Brief Introduction to Twentieth Century Critical Traditions

The twentieth century was marked by many diverse ideas and traditions in criticism. Certain colossal events have profoundly shaped the worlds of literature and criticism. These events included the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, World War I (1914-1918), the great economic depression of the 1930s, World War II (1938-1945), the Cold war between the capitalist nations and the communist bloc, decolonization of many nations, fall of Soviet Union, change of bipolar world into a uni polar world, emergence of the so-called "Third World" etc. Also the student movements attained strength and became more active during this period. The consequent psychological and material devastation after the World Wars led thinkers in all domains to question both heritage of the Enlightenment and the very foundations of Western civilization. The two World Wars, the rise of Fascism, the depression, and decolonization had a profound impact on literature and criticism. A long period from 1947 to 1973 witnessed a considerable growth and prosperity, which harboured the greatest and most rapid economic and cultural transformations in recorded history. Modern criticism and theory has broadened to encompass all these devastation and developments the twentieth century world experienced.

The two dominant intellectual literary traditions of this time were the German Tradition and the French Tradition. One of the main philosophical idea from the stream of German tradition is 'Phenomenology'. Phenomenology  is the philosophical study of the structures of subjective experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Gottingen and Munich in Germany. In Husserl's conception, it is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This ontology can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects acting and reacting upon one another. This theory was later followed and developed by other philosophers like Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, Emmanuel Levinas etc.

From the French tradition  there came Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure (A Swiss linguist but deeply rooted in French ideas) and major theories like psychoanalysis, structuralism, post structuralism etc. Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud". He influenced many leading French intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially those associated with post structuralism. Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical theory is another important theory in French tradition that has brought significant changes in the twentieth century. This school of thought emphasized the influence of the unconscious mind on behaviour. It has influenced French feminism and other dominant traditions of feminism. The two keywords those were dominant all around twentieth century were 'sign' and 'subject'. Levi Strauss(America), Prague school of linguistics(Russia), Roland Barthe (France), Lacan(France), feminists, Derrida etc were strictly adhered to the term 'sign'. The term 'subject' was very much used by Lacan, Derrida and feminists. Lacan brought together both the terms 'sign' and 'subject' together for the first time.

Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 07 Nov.                 2013. 

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 07 November. Prepared by Anantha Narayanan)

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