Structural approaches to systems of signification are rooted in linguistic theory

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 6 October 2016

Structural approaches to systems of signification are rooted in linguistic theory

A general analysis of language assists in the deconstruction of meaning as it inscribes in different types of narratives (whether verbal or non-verbal). This analysis can be divided into 4 processes. The first process is the identification of sign systems used in particular social situations. The second process is the determination of body movements, sounds, or letters that individuals use to express the sign system. For example, when an individual refer to the term ‘funeral’, then all individuals in a particular social group must know the proper reference to a funeral.

The fourth process is called social convention. Every individual in a community or group must agree on a common set of meanings for the sign system. The fifth process is the rate by which signs changes meaning. This phenomenon is common in Western societies where words and symbols often change as a response to social, economic, and political changes. One of the leading figures of semiotics is Roland Barthes who applied the structuralist linguist theory of Saussure to the study of mythology. His research paved the way for the development of a ‘contemporary mythology. ’ The findings were as follows:

1) The elements involved in narratives are often objects which assume meaning that transcends beyond their aesthetic and normative value. The development of this set of meanings is often expressed in the so-called ‘second level language’; 2) Barthes also identified the so-called ‘second order semiological system’, a sign system which enables people to communicate with each other; 3) An object assumes meaning when society attaches a particular value to a place, object, and entities. However, the significance of an object, idea or place may also be ambiguous and may assume a set of meanings that may be hard to deconstruct.

The ability to deconstruct meaning depends on a number of factors: 1) the complexity of the social situation, 2) the relationships of the actors involved, 3) the complexity of the general sign system used, 4) the range of possibilities, and 5) the biases of the researcher. Deconstructing meaning is a process by which an individual attempts to relate one set of meaning to another in a particular situation; that is, the repercussions of motives and intentions are always embedded in behavioral orientation. 2) Language is a system of distinct signs which correspond to distinct ideas (Saussure 1966:16).

Please explain the nature of sign according to Saussure’s theory of language. With the publication of the Course of General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure established a formal theory of language. Some of the assumptions of his theory were as follows: 1) There is a distinction between language and parole (speech). According to Saussure, language is the system of symbols in which individuals communicate. Parole refers to actual utterances. Since individuals communicate in an infinite number of utterances, it is the symbolic system which is deemed more important.

In providing distinction between uttering and language, one is also separating: a) what is social from what is individualistic, and b) what is essential from what is supplemental. Saussure likened this proposition to a chess game. The chess game has rules which define the overall essence of the game. Utterances are the actual moves of the players. The rules reflect the language used in the game; 2) Languages do not produce different versions of reality; they in fact produce different realities.

According to Saussure, the differences in language reflect the general differences not only in the interpretation of what is real but also the notion of what ought to be real. In short, if a language does not have a word for ‘natural’ then individuals who use such language will in effect submerged in a world which is unnatural. Here, the term ‘natural’ is both ambiguous and vague because individuals have no common assumptions of what is ‘natural’; 3) Language is the means by which social meanings is communicated through the use of signs.

A sign or a word defines the relationship between the assumed image of a set of sounds or signifiers and the actual image in an individual or group’s consciousness. A sign is a mediator between the assumed and the actual, between the real and the immaterial. According to Saussure, signs define the conceptual outlook of particular objects, entities, and even other ideas (Wittgenstein called this as referent idea). For example, the word ‘family’ describes both the ideal notion of a ‘family’ and the actual image of a family (reality).

In short, a sign define the ideal and realistic boundary of specific ideas, objects, and entities. The bond, however, between the signifier and the signified is both arbitrary and necessary. The principle of arbitrariness is predominant when all ideas about the boundary of language are assumed to be in unity. Here, language is assumed to be a matter of social convention; that is, a general creation of collective consciousness. Hence, the set of signifiers (signs) becomes a means to describe and define the image of an object, idea, or entity.

Signs become, as what philosophers of language called, an ‘arbitrary assumption of events’ – events which are either singular or plural in orientation. Signs therefore are subject to social change – as actors periodically change the meaning and application of signs in a sign system. In some cases, the change is radical that the original symbolic meanings are radically altered. Here, the signs remained intact, but the associated meaning greatly changed. This radical change is though not separated from changes that occur in a larger social environment, for it is the social environment which is the initial source of change.

Saussure defined language as both a ‘social phenomenon’ and a ‘psychological phenomenon. ’ It is a social phenomenon because the significance of signs is dependent on social context or milieu. Social context here refers to a state of perpetual change in language over time. In fact, Saussure argued that all languages are equal in complexity. This assumption may be ambitious, but it has not without basis. Languages change because the social contexts to which they are located also change. A good example of language change is the creation of new words in many of the leading world’s languages.

This process of language ramification is perhaps due to the rapidly increasing communication among individuals, groups, and institutions. However, much of the newly created words are ambiguous and vague in form. Many individuals either attach multiple meanings to a word or simply fail to attach a clear cut meaning to such word. 3) Debord states: ` an earlier stage in the economy’s domination of social life entailed an obvious downgrading of being into having that left its stamp on all human behaviour.

The present stage, which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalised shift from having to appearing: all effective `having` must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison dentre from appearances` (Debord 1994:16). Explain in your own words Debord’s analysis of the society of the spectacle. Much of Debord’s ideas of the society of the spectacle were derived from Marxian theory. According to Marxian theory: 1) Society is divided into two structures: the superstructure and the substructure.

The superstructure is the set of institutions functioning in the society. The substructure is the economic system utilized by the society. There is a dialectic relationship between these two structures. Initially, the substructure influences the creation of the superstructure. The economic system determines the type of institutions that will be developed in the society. The superstructure then either reinforces or alters the substructure, depending on the needs of the society; 2) The behavior of human wants is always conspicuous. Every individual desires not only the basic needs of life but also the ideal notion of fruitful living.

Here, Marxian theory suggests that human want is both arbitrary and unlimited. Individuals will strive to attain what is socially acceptable and what is necessary. Consumption is a means to ‘show’ that these ends are met (echoes Veblen’s idea on conspicuous consumption). Individuals therefore, disregarding the efficacy of moderation, engages in subtle confrontation with the sources of frustration. The end: the individual becomes more and more attuned to the affairs of the market, and subject to the whims of the ruling class – whom unconsciously is fueling individual frustration to obtain higher market value for their products.

Debord expounded on the development of a modern society in which genuine social life has been displaced with its representation – that is, its image. Debord argues that the history and essence of social life can be understood as the ‘decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. ’ Debord notes that this condition of human life is the event in which commodity completely colonized the virtue of social life – an unconscious process of colonization of the ideal notion of life. The term ‘spectacle’ connotes a social system characterized by the affluence of advance capitalism, the mass media, and capitalist led governments.

The spectacle is the general opposite image of society in which the relationship between commodities have, in general, displaced the relationships between people. The worship of the commodity becomes not just a rule but the aspiration of social life. In the society of the spectacle, the quality of life is poor, human perceptions greatly altered by both the market and mass media, and a general degradation of genuine knowledge. Knowledge becomes a tool for distorting reality – obstructing the true essence of the past, and promising a bright future of mass consumption and happiness.

Here, individuals becomes attune to the calls of the promise and prevent themselves from realizing that such ‘spectacle’ is only illusory – that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history which can be overturned by collective action. The responsibility therefore of the ‘drugged’ individual is to free himself from the chains of spectacular images through radical action. This radical action will restore the beauty and essence of social life – life defined not by the relations between commodities but by the relations between individuals.

4) Basing yourself on first Levi-Strauss and then Barthess analyses, describe how myths function as types of narratives that carry a message. Levi-Strauss applied the structural linguistics of Saussure to the analysis of family. Traditionally, the family is seen as the fundamental object of analysis and as a self-contained unit consisting typically of a husband, wife, and children (offspring). Levi-Strauss argued that families only acquire determinate identities through relations among units.

Levi-Strauss fundamentally altered the classical view of anthropology, putting the secondary family members first and analyzing the relationships among units instead of the units themselves. Levi-Strauss’ application of structural linguistics is also evident in his work Mythologiques, a series of work on myths and legends. According to Levi-Strauss, myths are a type of speech in which a symbolic system could be discovered. This theory attempted to explain the similarities of myths across cultures. Levi-Strauss argued that there is no such thing as ‘singular authentic version of a myth’ rather a general manifestation of the same language.

In order to understand this language, the fundamental units of myth, the mytheme, must be examined. To find the mythemes, Levi-Strauss deconstructed each version of a myth into a set of sentences, consisting generally of a relation between a function and a subject. Sentences with the same function and subject were given the same number. Both Levi-Strauss and Barthess analysis of myths revealed striking results. First, the coagulation of myths is a message of a common language. Second, the myth itself not only expressed social, economic, and political values, but also the means in which people throughout the ages communicate.

Third, binary opposition is a common characteristic of language – that is, people communicate through binary opposites. And lastly, myths function as a kind of lingual illusion which drives individual to act on the basis of the myth itself (the myth is a self-sufficient source of action). Here, the degree of which an individual communicates the myth to another individual is related to the preponderance of a myth. Hence, the survival of a myth depends on the way and degree to which it is communicated.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 6 October 2016

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