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  Monsieur Saussure

  and the langue/parole distinction




Having recently debated the purported value of post-structuralism - with a valued friend of mine - I decided it was time (if not badly overdue) to set onto the public record the theoretical basis of my complete rejection of the essential underpinnings of that particular school of thought...as, otherwise, mine venom might too easily be construed as (yet) another rearguard action by an old-school Humanities-type...sans critical rigour.

Sorry to point this out, but it’s YOU lot that are sans critical rigour - having completely failed to interrogate the groundbase of your worldview - to judge by the (many) postgrads/faculty I once (futilely) attempted to engage in debate upon this very issue...

Let’s get down to tin tacks...as it were.

Structuralism - as a school of thought - is essentially based upon Saussure’s “insight” that language can be subdivided into two forms. One is “parole” - the living expression of language users in all its informal diversity. The other is “langue” - language as a formalizable system of infinite inter-reference, governed by strict principles of usage - and hence treatable as a self-contained formal system which can be codified via the methodologies accepted by (most) nineteenth-century scientists...but, not Charles Darwin, interestingly enough - which, I suppose, makes him some kind 19th C. postmodernist (for those who are naive enough to accept such dodgy labels). Of course, to most in the contemporary “Humanities”, facts don’t enter into it...so, he’s still one of their favourite bogeymen...

To be sure...there are dissidents, such as Eco, who prefer Pierce as a model - but their practice isn’t that markedly different. They still ignore context - except where convenient - which makes a mockery of any attempt to justify this stuff as cutting-edge science...or even any science at all, come to think of it. Traditional (reductionist) science specializes in systematic attempts to minimize the effect of context, whilst studying same in detail is, in some ways, the hallmark of complexity work - but...ignoring it, apart where convenient, simply doesn’t make the grade, by any standard.

However, this - actually - doesn’t (at all) go to the heart of the problem...the langue/parole distinction itself. Put bluntly, langue DOESN’T EXIST.

It has no identifiable location - except in dictionaries/grammar books (a dubious “qualification”, given that few read the former & the latter are mostly consulted during Scrabble) - and all attempts by Chomsky & his disciples to codify the purely formal relation between this construct & real language use have invariably failed. If’n you doubt this - try reading Randy Allen Harris’ The Linguistics Wars (OUP: 1993)...and marvel at the way Chomsky’s (explictly post-Saussurean) agenda has narrowed over the last few decades, w/nary a genuine victory in sight.

Of course, “we” in the mainstream “Humanities” - as presently configured - are spared this, as we are NEVER encouraged to study - or even read - linguistics. No...we’re merely given to understand that structuralism/semiotics was securely based upon genuine linguistic scholarship - and that all critique of same was (properly) the province of a handful of French masters, whose pronouncements were handed-down from on high...

Crap.

The first/best/only truly-valuable critique of semiotics/structuralism - in its originally developed form (Russian Formalism) - was developed by Mikhail Bakhtin & co...who spotted what the later generation of post-structuralists didn’t...that “parole” (not the fictitious formalism of “langue”) was the best general basis for the study of linguistic (and cultural) forms - of all kinds - and that the whole question needed to be re-thought from the ground up, with the context/diversity of language/culture made the core...instead of being mostly ignored.

Now...I can hear the complaints already. Sure, Post-structuralism makes a fetish of diversity - albeit it (seemingly) can never be bothered to properly investigate context (too much like hard work?) - but, I ask you...is a “fetish” what diversity actually is?

No...diversity is bloody-well natural - as any biologist/let alone any comparative historian could tell you - and it needs to be built in to any truly VIABLE theory from the ground up...not merely “generated” as the result of some self-enclosed “critique” of a theoretically totalizing system such as structuralism/semiotics...

Think about it...because this is the crux of the argument, and a damn good reason for rejecting this model in toto.

As a vernacular saying has it...“nonsense stood on its head is still nonsense” - and, that’s exactly my response to all of the current versions of poststructuralism that I’ve run into. All, seemingly, are obsessed with the SYSTEM that “langue” spuriously generated - and, as well, the “certainty” that Descartes attempted to invest philosophy with. A good sign of this is that “causuistry” and “rhetoric” are still dirty words - although they only mean case-based reasoning, and the serious study of argumentation & its contexts...

If post-structuralism was actually a genuine intellectual revolution - instead of obfuscatory language/inverted formalism/intellectual empire building - it would have fully acknowledged its (superior) predecessors by now, reformed its rhetoric, and dumped its obsession w/system in favour of genuinely learning from what we humans get up to in general, and how we might be able to (modestly) theorize this. Instead - and this should be noticeable to even the staunchest supporter - it has markedly narrowed its horizons:

Lacan - supposedly a psychotherapist - is basically off the map except in certain areas of the visual/film arts. Derrida, who barely addressed literature per se in his heyday, is now mostly “read” by a dwindling litcrit bunch. Althusser isn’t even read at all. And Foucault - who took the entire “human sciences” as his playground, is now mostly touted by “cultural policy” types.

This is NOT the profile of a viable reformation of anything, let alone the study of humanity in general...

Back to the main game, however...as I (unlike those that fetishize “critique”) rapidly get tired of shooting fish in barrels.

What I haven’t pointed out here, is just where the obsession w/language (and culture) as one big system invariably leads - and this is, perhaps, the most damning point of all...

Systemic thinking can be useful...to be sure. It encourages us to define our terms, to build strong hypotheses, and to test them against recalcitrant reality. But, that ONLY applies if the system is small enough to allow this kind of testing. Really big systems - especially those conceived as self-contained (read: closed) aren’t amenable to this type of work, as Chomsky found out...although he’s yet to admit it.

No...genuinely huge closed systems - now...remember how we were all encouraged to downgrade “reference” (read: context) - do generate internal critiques, but only of the game-playing sort; those that undermine systemic coherence by taking its own internal relationships, and pushing them to some (absurd) limit. But that absurdity isn’t evident from within...it’s only clear from an external perspective; one that game-players are (systematically) trained to downgrade.

All of these, without exception (it seems to me) overly rely upon the workings of the presumed “system” - and the undoubted fact that, to those who study such workings in depth, all linkages (eventually) appear equally critical. But...the end result of this track of thought is pure equivalence: all meanings are equally significant, all power equally tainted, sanity is merely/totally a social construct...to cite only the most obvious (and relevant) examples...

Again: crap!

Try reading Foucault’s “engaged” political writings (mostly interviews) in depth - as I once did - and you’ll find that his “theory” of power cannot even justify his own political leanings...let alone anyone else's. The ONLY way out of this bind is to scrap the entire project of critique from within structuralism...and accept the v.messy task of constructing something genuinely useful from without.

This has been my task for many years now, and this website is the (belated) first fruit of same...but, your task is (probably) much easier. Most of you that’ve plowed through to this point have certain special areas of study - unlike myself, these days... Now, I’d hoped, by this stage, to have delivered a swathe of book reviews for you - of the material I’ve cherry-picked over the years - but a v.severe bout of influenza (and depression following) has derailed this, for the moment...although I am seemingly now (Feb 2004) back on track, at least for the present.

But: the new humanities aims to be a resource for intellectual dissidents in that beleaguered discipline, so - please email me w/your needs as to specific theoretical problems, at <jhenryc@hotmail.com> and I’ll do my very best to help...

Be warned, though...genuine theoretical pluralism, un-domesticated by an over-arching perspective, such as that provided by poststructuralism, is difficult work. Most/all problems ramify into multiple disciplinary areas, and the reading can seem pretty prohibitive at first. On the other hand, the work I recommend is all well/clearly written - and provides genuine (albeit limited) insight into real questions - both of which should come as some relief.

How you then combine these limited insights - honestly - will then depend upon your detailed knowledge of the evidence bearing upon your problem...and the extent to which you can be bothered to read (and seriously think about) the whole bunch of diverse work which is relevant. This is casuistry, and...it's all we (really) can do - anything else is merely a sophisticated form of lying to oneself...

Back to “langue”/“parole”, if briefly...in order to wind this one up.

The study of “langue” has - increasingly - yielded diminishing returns, both in linguistics, and in the humanities...We ought to accept this - whatever our extant theoretical biases - as the simple fact that it is, and start looking to alternatives. Once we junk the systemic bias, it is clear that there are regularities in both language & culture - but that they stem from an almost bewildering variety of sources...all of which have generated substantial work divorced from any totalizing explanatory system.

Get out of the ghetto, I say - and face up to the genuine theoretical pluralism that is all around you...if you can be bothered to truly engage with it...

And...finally: perhaps we make a mistake in blaming Saussure - and Pierce(?) - for our current woes. Pierce was the son of a leading mathematician...and he did not have the insights of 20th C. maths into all the weaknesses of formal systems (particularly re self-analysis) to temper his optimism. And Saussure was responding to the (very real) weakness of linguistics in the area of formal analysis...in his day. I’m fairly sure that both would’ve been horrified by the way their (very distant) offspring has systematically ruined much of the analysis of culture in the “Humanities” today - and would welcome this counter-attack, however poorly resourced...

John Henry Calvinist