Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Semeiotics Midterm and Final Exam Responses, Fall 2007

This is the thirty-third post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

At Kent State University, I am glad that I took Dr. Gene Pendleton’s Semeiotics seminar (ENG 75057). Dr. Pendleton is a formidable professor who consistently amazed me (and I believe the class as a whole) with the depth and breadth of his philosophical knowledge and the effortless way he would explain, chart, and diagram each semeiotic lecture. If Dr. Pendleton was a philosophical locomotive, we students were his freight cars. Each class would begin with a powerful lurch as he would begin lecture. It was in the morning and the material was difficult. He would start out in a low gear and drag us all along for the ride until the momentum of each of our lumbering weight added to his increasing momentum. Occasionally, we would encounter screetching brakes and perilous squeals on too sharp turns, but the train would make the next station safely with Dr. Pendleton’s locomotive in the lead. I admire his mastery of the material and ability to explain it in a number of ways until everyone has a modicum of understanding. Through my on-going development as a scholar and teacher, I hope to emulate those qualities he demonstrates in my own classes.

This Recovered Writing post includes my midterm and final exam written responses on all matters semeiotic. Imagine them bleeding red and you’ll get an idea of what the marked versions resembled. Looking back at these documents remind me that it was all part of a greater process of personal and intellectual development.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Gene Pendleton


October 18, 2007

First Exam

1.         Discuss the semiotic approach of Saussure by defining and integrating the following terms:  differential network; signifier/signified; arbitrary; diachronic/synchronic; langue/parole.  Why is Saussure’s notion of the sign considered binary?

Saussure went off in his own direction in developing a theory of a system of signs.  The basis of his theory in studying language (langage) is that it is a differential network.  This means that language is based on a system of relationships like the relationships between places on a map.  Additionally, meaning is derived from the relationship between things, and no meaning is possible for something alone and unconnected to the overall network of relationships.  For Saussure, the relational system of signs states that meaning is derived from the relationships between other signs in the language.  This is in opposition to the substantive view of signs in that there is something stable about words pointing to one thing, and that words have meaning in their own right.  Essentially, this means that something about itself that gives meaning.  Saussure challenges this through proposing that signs are arbitrary in nature.  This means that there is nothing about a cow (i.e., the cowness) that means it should be and always called ‘cow.’  What about other languages?  What about multiple names pointing to the same thing?  These questions point to the arbitrariness of signs.  Returning to his concept of the differential network of signs, it’s important to note that differential means difference.  Therefore, Saussure says that language is learned through opposition.  This is the idea of binary opposition (e.g., dogs and non-dogs are binary opposites).  Binary opposition allows for multiple ways of dividing up the world around us, and the way in which we divide up the world is based on our language framework.  Unlike Peirce’s use of a triadic relationship of signs, Saussure develops a dyadic relationship of signs.  His notion of the sign is constructed from two parts:  the signifier and the signified.  These two elements are directly connected in the way that they can be analogous called two sides of a piece of paper and therefore, inseparable.  The signifier is the sign-vehicle.  This is the word, mark, or representation that points to the signified.  The signified is the concept or idea of the sound image.  Saussure develops this theory in order to study language.  However, instead of studying it diachronically or through time, he approaches the study of language synchronically or as a slice of time.  He brackets language in order to study its structures at a moment of time rather than as a historical development.  In his study of langage, he divides it into two elements that are interdependent:  langue and parole.  Langue is the abstract language system.  It’s a system of language, set of social conventions, and independent of parole but in a relationship with parole.  parole is the act of speaking.  It is the concrete instances of speech rather than the abstract structure of speech.  Parole depends on the individual will and it therefore, volunteeristic.  Connected to parole is the idea of conversational implicature.  This is the set of limitations and conversational directions that one should follow if you want to communication.  This comes from langue.  Additionally, we learn langue or socially inculcated rules when we are learning language.  Then, we perform those rules through parole.

2.         Explain Austin’s theory of the speech-act.  Include a discussion of performatives in your response.  What is the descriptive fallacy?

Austin’s theory of the speech-act is in opposition to the descriptive fallacy, which states that the primary reason for language is to describe the world.  He doesn’t believe this to be the primary purpose of language.  Instead, he says that there is an aspect of language that’s performative.  For example, if you say, “I promise,” you are performing an act to do what it is that you promised to do rather than merely describing something.  These performatives or illocutionary acts are doing two things:  saying something and performing the action.  It’s based on working out rather than truth or falsity.  Austin’s terms for this are:  a successfully completed or performed illocutionary act is considered happy or felicitious while an unsuccessfully compoleted or performed illocutionary act is unhappy or infelicitous.  Also, performatives depend on appropriate circumstances based on context and convention.  For example, you have to have done something wrong to actually apologize for it.  A locutionary act is a speect-act that is merely descriptive rather than performing an action via the speech-act itself.  In addition to locutionary and illocutionary acts there is a third:  perlocationary acts.  This is essentially the effects or results of the locutionary act.  This act stresses the effect on the hearer or receiver of the speech-act.

3.         Why is Bakhtin considered a proponent of dialogism?  How is his view opposed to standard behavioristic accounts of communication?  What is polyphony?  Heteroglossia?  What are centripetal and centrifugal forces?  What is the significance of “carnival” in Bakhtin’s thought?

Bakhtin developed his literary theory around the idea of dialogism, which is the idea that all language including works of literature are dialogic in nature.  This means that each utterance or work of literature is in dialog with that which has come before, and in expectation of things to be said in the future.  Furthermore, dialogism is founded on the ideas that meaning is interactive and significance is also interactive.  Dialogism is at the heart of the notions of text, self, and culture.  Therefore, language and culture are not created in vacuum, but in the continuous interchange or dialog between everyone.  It follows that no utterance is solely self-determined, and it’s an attack on monology, or one sided ‘conversations.”  Instead of the voice coming from top-down (e.g., Stalinism), all voices are intermingled and reliant upon one another for meaning.  Another way of looking at this, is that Bakhtin and his circle promoted a polysemic approach to signs through dialogism.  This means that certain signs have multiple meanings (e.g., run as a verb and a noun).  He developed the concept of polyphony in literature along with the idea of heteroglossia, which comes into play in his study of the modernist novel.  Heteroglossia is the presence of multiple voices in a given text.  An example of this would be Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  The voices of the brothers operate in opposition to one another along lines of contra and pro, which results in dramatic tension and moves the narrative forward.  There are different voices including that of the author’s in a given text.  Heteroglossia can be said to be a model for the polyphony of voices in dialogic language and culture.

Connected to the concepts of monophony and polyphony are the ideas of centripetal and centrifugal.  Centripetal means a pulling to center or pro-authoritarian ideas, and centrifugal means a pushing away from the center or anti-authoritarian ideas.  Bakhtin’s dialogism is clearly centrifugal, because it implies a breakdown of norms and a reversal of roles.  Role reversal is important to Bakhtin through the idea of carnival.  During carnival, as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, roles are reversed.  Characters that emphasize this are the rogue, fool, and clown.  These characters each challenge authority and represent centrifugal ideas.  Carnival and subversive characters such as the clown attempt to subvert language through parody.  This subversion is a reorienting from within.  Reorienting from within the text takes place through deconstruction.  Essentially, something within the text itself must lend to its own deconstruction.  An example of this is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  The voice given to the main character seems like parody, but it turns the reader against the author’s intentions for the text.  Once an utterance or text is released into the world, it takes on a life of its own, and the author no longer has control over the interpretation or understood meaning by those reading the text.

4.         Jakobson promotes a theory of semiotic significance involving selection and combination.  Relate these to the following:  paradigmatic/syntagmatic; metaphor/metonymy; equivalence.  How are these oppositions related to aphasiac disorders as noted by Jakobson?

Jakobson applies Saussure’s theory of linguistics to a theory of poetics.  In doing so, he draws on Saussure’s use of Cartesian planes to illustrate his ideas of selection and combination as perpendicular concepts that result in language and culture.  The vertical axis involves concepts that are based on association by substitution and works by association of resemblance.  Therefore, paradigmatic and metaphor are mapped on this axis.  Paradigmatic elements involve the building blocks such as phonemes, words, and sentences.  These are the elements from which selection is made.  Metaphor illustrates the idea of substitution, because metaphor is the substitution of one thing for another.  For example, in the verse, “My love is like/a red, red rose,” the word ‘like’ facilitates the substitution of ‘red, red rose’ for ‘love.”  Conversely, syntagmatic and metonymy are plotted along the horitzontal axis.  These are side-by-side associations.  They are related as being part of something else, or in relation to something else.  They are linear in the sense that they are strung together.  Therefore, syntagmatic is the combination of the paradigmatic elements to form words, sentences, etc.  It is the syntactic structure and organization of separate elements to construct meaning through combination and selection.  For Jakobson, this polarity is the foundation of language.  With polarity comes the idea of equivalence.  Messages (i.e., utterances) are combinations made of selected parts, and the select appropriately, one needs a code.  A code acts as the determinant of what to select and how to combine the selections into something meaningful.  A broad example of code is the English language, and a narrow example of code is contract law.  Applied to poetics, equivalence is achieved through selection and combination.  For example, in describing the motion of a jet fighter, an equivalence can be made with birds:  The F-16 soars/screams/swoops/etc.  Furthermore, this opposition works in realms beyond language, and may apply to any symbolic process or any system of signs.  All of this is built on the combination of these two modes.

Jakobson drew on his studies of aphasia to establish these as integral to speech operations and comprehension in humans.  Aphasia is the inability to produce or understand language due to injury sustained to the speech centers in the human brain.  The two types of aphasia that Jakobson was interested in were semantic disorders and syntactic disorders.  A semantic disorder is a vertical axis disorder and therefore, affects one’s ability to properly choose words.  For example, one may ask for a fork, but really want a knife.  They are associated together as silverware, but are not true substitutions.  Syntactic disorders involve the inability to combine words in the proper way.  For example, this disorder might be exhibited by someone who says, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”  Okay, so that’s actually an example of a semantic disorder.  A syntactic disorder example would be to say, “Run like to go for an I.”

5.         Explain the Peircean notion of the tripartite nature of the sign.  What is the significance of icon, index and symbol in Peirce’s tenfold classification of signs?  What are the different types of interpretant?

For Peirce, signs are composed of three elements.  The first is the sign/representamen/sign-vehicle (I’ll use the latter term).  The sign-vehicle is the mark or symbol that carries meaning for someone receiving the sign-vehicle.  The second is the interpretant, which is the effect of the sign-vehicle on one who receives and comprehends the sign-vehicle.  The third element of the tripartite nature of the sign is the object.  The object is the ‘thing’ about which the sign-vehicle represents.  This can be anything from a physical object such as a chair or a concept like ‘university.’

The sign-vehicle relates to its object by means of three types of relationships.  The first is icon.  An iconic relationship is one of resemblance or shared qualities between the sign-vehicle and object.  An example of this would be a picture or photograph.  The second type of relationship is index.  An indexical relationship is a dyadic relationship based on causality or force.  This means that the relationship involves two things and the connection is causal or one-to-one.  For example, one thing, action, or force results in something else occurring (i.e., causality).  A concrete example of an indexical relationship is finding someone else’s footprints on a deserted island.  You know they aren’t your footprints, therefore they were made by someone else.  The symbol is the third type of relationship.  This involves conventional relationships, which is the basis for the way language is setup in such a way that ‘cow’ stands for the animal.  An example of this is the fish or ichthys symbol standing for alpha and omega, fisher of men, and Christ.

Peirce developed three types of interpretant.  The first is the immediate interpretant, which is what is usually referred to as the sign’s meaning, and is always there embedded in the sign.  The second is the dynamical interpretant, which is the sign’s effect over time within the limits of one’s lifetime.  The third is the final interpretant.  This is an ideal, teleogical final goal/end/purpose of the sign.  Essentially, this is the actualized potential of the sign at the end of time.  The final interpretant is a scientific standpoint in the sense that this is actualized when all the data are in and the goal or end of the semeiotic process is realized.

6.         What are some of the hallmarks of Russian Formalism?  Are there any similarities to Structuralism?  What is emphasis laid on the notion of ‘making strange?’

Russian Formalism is a reaction to the symbolistic work generated in Russian during the early part of the twentieth-century.  Symbolism involves the atmospheric, moody, subjective, and emotional works from that time, and it is not a formal approach to analysis.  How should this work be evaluated?  Without Formalism, it’s criticism will be like the literature that’s being critiqued.  The Formalists (including Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Roman Jakobson and the OPOJAZ in St. Petersburg and the Linguistic Circle in Moscow) set out to build a scientific approach to criticism.  This involves downplaying the content and deriving aesthetic significance from the form rather than the content.  Also, the text must be divorced from external contexts such as history, author, politics, etc.  For the Formalists, everything for analysis is on the page.  It becomes a verbal icon and the author loses any right to say what it means.  The internal (as in the text) is promoted and the external (everything outside the text) is disparaged.

OPOJAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language) began with symbolism, but developed into a reaction against it.  Subjectivity and vague philosophy are discarded in an attempt to arrive at a scientific method for literary and art criticism.  This is a direct challenge to the earlier forces of symbolism and Romanticism, which promoted the doing away with rules and supporting the idea that the imagination was a cognitive enterprise where one could get in touch with truth with one’s unique genius.  The Formalists accept the autonomy of art (art and literature is divorced from externals), and the application of critique that looks at how it’s produced, not what it’s about.  In order to study literature, the first order of business was to define what is a work of art/literature.  This developed into a definition of literariness.  Literariness is not found in the author, but in the text itself, and the use of language must distinguish it from other uses of language.  Shklovsky said that literariness is determined by the text’s ability to “make strange.”  This means that the reader cannot simply look through it.  The language has to be made strange in such a way to make it opaque so that the reader has to pay attention to the words and not the underlying meaning or story. “Making strange” is the disturbance of the linguistic framework in order to change your worldview.  This is a reaction against language in the everyday sense, and it’s readily more apparent in poetry than in prose.  This concept goes hand in hand with modernism, which began in the late nineteenth-century.  During that literary era, literature becomes more self-referential.

Shklovsky’s poetics of fiction shares some similarities with Saussure and Structuralism, but his work wasn’t directly influenced by Saussure.  Shklovsky plots the poem onto the paradigmatic and the novel to syntagmatic, because the passage of time is the central concern of the novel.  Furthermore, Shklovsky separates the prose-plot from the prose-storyHe says that the plot is made strange.  There is something about the plot that distinguishes it from a progression of events (i.e., there are no heroes in a mere history–study happens).  The defamiliarization of events destabilizes the syntagmatic quality of novels and gives the text meaning beyond the story.  For this analysis, he draws on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is often pointed to as originating many modern narrative techniques such self-reflexivity and intertextuality.


Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Gene Pendleton


December 6, 2007

Final Exam

1.         Discuss Lacan’s notion of the “mirror stage.”  Relate it to the notion of the unified self as an ideal.  Distinguish the imaginary order from the symbolic.  Why does Lacan claim that the unconscious is structured like a language?  Include a discussion of metaphor and metonymy in your response.

Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage, or imaginary stage (meaning image, not imagination) is a developmental stage that takes place between six to eighteen months, and it’s dominated by the image.  What that means is that during that period, the child first sees itself in the mirror.  This does not mean that the child recognizes itself in the image reflected by the surface of the mirror, rather that it raises in the child an awareness of the other, something outside of itself.  The child seeing the reflection derives a certain joy from the event.  More importantly, seeing itself in the mirror anticipates the child as autonomous and in control of its actions and behavior.  The image provides the child a reflection of an integrated whole, which contrasts with the baby’s spastic behavior resulting from a lack of coordination and a fragmentation of functions.  Essentially, the child regards its body, as best a baby can, as bits and pieces rather than an interconnected whole.  Furthermore, the baby can’t distinguish or separate itself from the world.  There is no sense of other prior to the mirror stage.  The baby’s image in the mirror is an idealized, unified self.  The child’s identification with images during this stage seems to be an ideal on our part.  Another term for this is imaginary mastery, or mastery of the image.  Imaginary mastery leads to biological mastery through development, but any future relationship with the real world will have to take in account imaginary mastery.  We are fundamentally an alien nation at the root of our self.  There’s a gap that can’t be breached, and we can’t ever be fully integrated.  We project a self that is integrated, but it’s ideal that we cannot attain.  This leads to an illusion of autonomy, or control over ourselves through rationality rather than giving into desires.  We are a fragmented self, but we believe ourselves to be integrated.

The sense of self comes from identifying with images of others.  During the mirror stage, we identify with the nurturer/entity taking care of us.  We aren’t doing anything for it, but it is doing things for us (e.g., feeding, cleaning, caring for, etc.).  This leads us to desire things, because others (e.g., the nurturer) desire them (e.g., apparently, us).  Thus, we, as babies, are wrapped up in that other person’s desires, and we want to be the object of that person’s desires.  This leads to a de-centering of desire.  This means that our biological needs are projected on others that we want to want us rather on ourselves.

Following the mirror stage is the Oedipal stage.  Lacan replaces Freud’s penis with the idea of the phallus.  The phallus is the symbol of the object of the mother’s desire.  The child will want to be the object of the mother’s desire.  Consequently, the desire of the nurturer is integral to all this for Lacan.  The sexual is downplayed in this dynamic, and it’s true for boys as well as girls.  During the early years of development, the child figures out what the mother wants in order to become the phallus object.  However, along comes the father and he brings in the symbolic order through law via language.  This socialization on the part of the father for the child is accomplished through language.  Furthermore, language was there before the child exists, and it represents the other.  The father thwarts the child’s Oedipal aspirations to be the object of the mother’s desire by the introduction of language in the years 5-6.  The child must be dominated by language (i.e., law), and the male/father represents this for the child.  Once the child recognizes that it can’t be the every desire of the mother, and accepts the father and the father’s law, then the child achieves an acceptance of castration and no longer wants to be the object of the mother’s desire.

Lacan argues that the unconscious is structured like a language, because it operates on selection and combination, condensation and displacement, and it comes into being in relation to language.  In his analysis of signs, he found that slippages occur between the signified and the signifier whereby the signifier takes on greater significance than the signified (e.g., the urinary separation of men’s/women’s bathrooms–the sign on the door–signifier–takes on greater meaning than the door–signified).  In psychoanalysis, meanings are to be found between signifiers (i.e., the concept lies between the gaps of signifiers).  In this sense, metonymy is a relationship that’s associative, not metaphorical, a chain.  For example, the baby takes the place of the phallus for the mother.  Metaphor is condensation or substitution of one thing for another.  Lacan saw the disruptions or gaps as what we really are.  As a psychoanalyst, you look for pauses (gaps), and at the metaphors in what people say and follow the chain (metonymy) of signifiers back to the suppressed desire or instinct.  Therefore, unlike the Freudian unconscious that’s there from the beginning, the Lacanian unconscious is produced by language, thus it’s structured like a language.


2.         Explain Barthes’s employment of the notion of connotation.  How is it reflected in his distinguishing of levels of signs?  Use the example of the soldier saluting the French flag in your discussion.  How does Barthes make use of the fashion industry to explicate his structuralist approach to semiotics?

Barthes borrows concepts from Hjelmslev to arrive at his own notion of connotation.  The idea comes from metalanguage and object languages.  You use one language to talk about another language.  This involves two elements:  expression and content.  Expression is the thing said, and the content is the meaning behind the expression.  For Hjelmslev, signs exist at the intersection of the expression plane and the content plane.  Connotation is seeing the expression plane as a language in itself.  The connotator is one element of the expression plane seen as itself.

What he develops is a second order signifier system.  This means that it takes one system to say something about the other.  In his formulation the first order system is the denotative.  This is the actual image taken as an image without reading anything into it imaginatively, ideologically, or otherwise.  The second order system is the connotative.  This is the meaning behind the image.  On the connotative level, the image must be read in a certain way, or the image promotes a particular reading for a particular group of people.  For example, in the example of the photo of the black French soldier saluting.  On the denotative level, the photo is simply that:  a photo a black French soldier saluting.  However, on the connotative level, there are additional meanings that are meant to promote ideology and myth.  Signification in Barthes system is a little complicated, but decipherable.  On the denotative level, the denotative sign is made of a signifier/signified.  The signifier is the picture, and the signified is the thing that the picture is of.  On the connotative level, the denotative sign is the signifier, and the signified are the values, ideology, myth, etc. that try to persuade people that the ideological aspect is natural in the denotative sign.  Thus, the dominative elite promotes their ideology through seemingly “natural” images.  In this example, the photo implies allegiance by France’s colonized subjects, and it promotes French imperialism as good, because it produces loyal colonized subjects.

The dominant bourgeois ideology is promoted through the second order system of connotation.  Through images, people consume myths as factual and not merely semeiological.  However, it should be noted that not all of this is intentional or propaganda.  Other things contribute to connotative messages associated with images that may not be the intent of the producer.

Producers of these images need people to get it and comprehend it.  To make sure that they do, they employ images and words.  Barthes uses the fashion industry as an example of this.  In fashion magazines, there are many images of the fashions, but there are also brand names, brand logos, or brand symbols in the image or on the clothing advertised.  These images can be read with semeiology, which is a meta-language, a language for talking about other languages.  It’s metalinguistic to say these pictures are content that I’m talking about on the denotative and connotative levels of the second order signifier system.  However, Barthes goes beyond this by showing that metalanguage itself can be employed in higher levels.  For example, a third level might be to look at the rhetoric involved in the image and words.  This means, talking about them as an expression of rhetoric.  In this way, the picture can be semeiologically studied in a variety of ways.  You can look at the rhetoric involved and question its persuasive qualities.  The image means something, which would pertain to ideology.  Then you can turn to the object, the signified, and say something about it and what is being expressed and how.  A semeiologist may expand or contract these levels of analysis.

Barthes takes his analysis of fashion to explicate his structuralist approach to semeiotics.  Before, commutation of phonemes or the changing of sounds in words was used to reveal significance.  If making a substitution changed the meaning of the word, then it was significant.  If not, there is no significance.  Barthes extends this to patterns and colors in clothing.  He substituted different patterns or color schemes to determine significance.  Thus, he applies structural linguistics to non-linguistic things like fashion and arrives at a vestimentary code or a code of vestments (clothing).  In this elaboration by Barthes, the denotative is “are you in fashion or not?”  The connotative is something else:  myth on social effects and myths associated with fashion are systems of connotation.  This also includes rhetorical and persuasive connotations.  However, Barthes is accused of logocentrism (the word is central/dominant), because he emphasizes written fashion and commentary on fashion.


3.         Distinguish between Kristeva’s notions of the semiotic and the symbolic.  In what sense is this distinction employed to place aspects of the biological in the symbolic order?  How do the ideas of the chora and the chorion function in the previously mentioned distinction?  In what sense is Kristeva in line with other postmodernists in promoting a denial of the Cartesian ego/self?

Kristeva wants to distinguish between the semeiotic and the symbolic.  She does this through looking at poetry.  She believes that the body leaves an imprint on the work through sensation.  The body impacts language.  One must read off this bodily impact in language, read off the physical influence.  She finds there’s a particular dynamism to the bodily impact on language.  Language is supposed to be dynamic, but what allows it to renew itself?  Clearly, creativity is at the root of cultural change.  Creativity causes language and culture to have that dynamic.  However, she doesn’t agree with Lacan’s notion of the symbolic (i.e., “name of the father” ushers us into language, child made aware of its non-omnipotence through the symbolic order, the symbolic order and language create the unconscious).  She argues for a pre-verbal semeiotic stage.  She draws on avant-garde poetic language to show that you find the imprint of the preverbal semeiotic stage embedded in it.  The preverbal semeiotic stage takes place in the child’s infancy, prior to the inculcation of language–before the father stands between the mother and child.  How does this pre-oedipal stage occur?  There must be energy and drives identified with the id.  Considering avant-garde poetry, it demonstrates a turning your back on traditional poetic form.  If you look at the semeiotic, it’s made apparent through subversion of traditional way doing things.  There must be a source of energy to bring this about.  Thus, creativity is a new way of looking at things, a subversion of the old.  This is an almost physical influence on language.  The body, through the preverbal semeiotic stage, leaves an imprint on language in this way.

Kristeva doesn’t contradict Lacan in regard to the preverbal semeiotic stage, but she de-emphasizes the symbolic.  You have to get back to the body in order to locate the bodily origins of the subject.  The root of this lies in the memory traces, mnemonic traces, or corporeal memory of the symbolic separation of mother and child and the immediacy between mother and child.  Corporeal memory went on before the symbolic mediation.  The semeiotic for Kristeva is the memory before the symbolic erupts into language, and it’s remembered through the poet’s use of creative language.  This only applies to poetry that’s considered subversive, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Kristeva takes the terms chora and the chorion from Plato’s Timaeus, which is a cosmology or story about how the world was made and its large-scale structure.  Plato distinguishes between what we call Platonic forms or ideals (abstractions), which represent stability, permanence, triangleness, and the real world (concrete), which is corporeal, spatial, and includes individuals.  In the story, the Demiurge uses the Platonic forms to enforce form on chaos.  This allows an agent to come up to the chaos to impose form on the chaos.  For Plato, the chora is the space in which these forms are imposed on chaos to form things.  For Kristeva, she’s also looking at biology where the chora is both the image and technical term from embryology that is the bodily site of the fetus.  Whereas for Plato, the chora is the receptacle, a nurse, almost a mother.  It’s the receptacle of becoming.  It should be noted that being is the Platonic forms, and becoming is the concrete and individuals.  Returning to Kristeva, the fetus signals the mother through a sort of semeiotic process.  The chorion, or the membrane enclosing the fetus in the womb is a symbolic form where the fetus ends and the mother begins.  However, there’s more going on that simply separation.  Kristeva recognizes that something is going on in respect to language.  In this sense, the concrete is couched in terms of bones, hormones, etc., and the symbolic is mothering and separation.  Furthermore, when a woman becomes pregnant, her body is prevented from menstruating after receiving hormone signals.  Somehow the embryo signals the mother to stop menstruating or it will die.  Thus, the chorion defines the semeiotic space of the other, because it separates fetus and mother, and it allows communication/signaling.  Also, it’s important to remember that a linguistic sign is used in the absence of the object.  In this case, the object is there, but it’s still the other.  There is no distinction between reality and the other.  Through this, the mother’s body becomes a semeiotized body.  The mother’s body acts as the means of mediation between the fetus and the semeiotic order.  The fetus has no control over what’s happening, but it can signal, but that’s all.  Activity, developments, and acting on the fetus are negativity.  The fetus is being generated, but negated (i.e., other things acting on me).  Additionally, the chora is the space where the speaking subject is being formed, and that is a theoretical space as well as a real space.

Kristeva takes an anti-reductionist approach to the ego.  Looking back to Edmund Husserl, there’s an opposition between the natural standpoint (e.g., there’s a tree) and the world as perceived or imagined (e.g., the tree presented to consciousness).  The way the world is presented to consciousness means that you have to bracket the natural standpoint.  Everything about the real world is mediated through consciousness.  Thus, you posit the tree in your mind, but in what sense?  Essentially, you’re saying, “I’m committed to the tree in a certain way.”  Kristeva then takes the idea of the thetic from Husserl.  If you posit something, it has being in its own right.  The thetic for Kristeva requires a break in the signifying process.  You make it part of your awareness–that thing is something that I consciously think of and recognize as independent of myself.  You have to adopt an attitude toward something.  The pre-sentience uttering of children is already thetic.  When a child sees and animal and says, “woof woof,” the child recognizes the dog, cat, etc. as being something separate from itself.  Attribution is going on even at this elementary level.  Whereas we can say, “I’m grouping these together under a common rubric,” a child can’t, but they do it nonetheless with metonymy.  Association, shared qualities, or attributes are all primal associations made on the part of the child.  This isn’t yet the symbolic stage, so the child is drawing on the semeiotic unconscious to lump things together metonymically.

4.         What does Derrida mean by “deconstruction”?  Why does he attack what he considers to be the “metaphysics of presence”?  What is his notion of the logic of the supplement?  How is it employed in his deconstruction of Austin’s approach to speech acts?  Why does he object to Saussure’s phonocentric structuralism?

Derrida, drawing on Hegel’s idea of overcoming differentiation through a method of synthesis, plays with the idea of overcoming differentiation.  In Western thought, there’s generally a hierarchy where some things are favored over others.  Derrida shows that these hierarchies can be broken down, that every hierarchy can be inverted.  He does this by showing how one thing is no better than another, not that you can replace one thing with another.  This is the basic idea behind Derridian deconstruction.

The fundamental hierarchy in Western thought is presence (dominance)/absence (derivative).  For Derrida, one can show absence as fundamental and presence as derivative.  This comes from the orthodox logic of the primary/origins and derivative/supplementary.  There are things that seem necessary, and those that don’t.  For example, ornament is something we think of as supplementary.  Derrida picks on the derivative/supplementary.  He picks on the throw away remark, the footnote to show that what’s going on isn’t what’s really going on.  He shows that what’s supplementary can dominate what came first.  He attacks the logic of the supplement.

Derrida is influenced by Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals.  Nietzsche argued that morality came about for humans through an extended process of breeding that resulted with an animal (human) with the right to make promises.  What this means is that over time humans develop a conscience by sharing a remembered past of pain and torture that resulted from doing what they wanted and not keeping promises (Nietzsche believed in acquired/inherited traits–definitely not a Darwinian).  Eventually a human animal is produced that has a conscience and feels bad when it doesn’t keep a promise.  This produced humans that are predictable, and morality gives us something beautiful:  civilization.  The way Derrida is influenced by this is that you can’t assume the origins are primary with respect to hierarchies.

Derrida attacks the hierarchy of metaphysics of presence and absence.  The metaphysics of presence has to do with speech, which is considered primary to much of linguistic semeiotics, and absence or writing is considered derivative.  The idea of supremacy of the metaphysics of presence has to do with the fact that if someone’s speaking, they are present with the listener.  The speaker can be questioned, and asked to make things clear about what’s been said.  Absence or writing comes after speech, and is disjointed from the author.  Once something is written down, it’s divorced from the author, and the reader may misunderstand or misinterpret the intentions of the author.  Therefore, it’s considered supplementary or derivative to speech, because it follows speech in development and it’s open to misunderstanding.  However, Derrida shows that speech is just as prone as writing to misunderstanding or misinterpretation.  Whatever someone says, we each have a particular framework in which we take what’s been said and that may color or effect the way we understand what someone else says (e.g., two people on a news program arguing past one another, because they can’t understand the other person’s viewpoint no matter how much is said to clarify each position, or a boyfriend saying something meant as a compliment to a girlfriend, but the girlfriend interprets that as an insult).  The assumption is that speech is clear or can be clarified, but that’s not the case.  When you say something, you’re sending out this idea in your head through language.  However, Derrida doesn’t go along with the Cartesian ego and the immediate relation with yourself.  There can’t be an immediate relation with the self, because there are always mediators (e.g., language).  For Derrida, you don’t know what you mean until you say it.

Derrida believes in a free play of signifiers.  Signifiers are not fixed to specific signifieds, but to various signifieds (think:  Pierce’s interpretants).  You never get to the outside–there’s always another signifier.  This results in a constant deferral of meaning (i.e., to put off meaning for ever through an infinite chain of signifiers).  You can’t pin meaning down even though we’re dominated by the metaphysics of presence.  Writing can discover meaning of words after the act of writing, but there’s no transcendent signified.  There’s nothing outside language that can give it meaning.

Derrida approaches the breaking down of hierarchies through binary oppositions.  This draws on binary logic (i.e., true or false, no other options, but we do think outside this).  Within the binary opposite, the hierarchy can be inverted.  The habituation that engenders in us the acceptance of a particular hierarchy can be overcome by imaging something constantly deceiving us.  If we actively think about this over a given amount of time, we can overcome these hierarchies.  Through this, we can overcome the culturally created hierarchies we’ve been led to believe as natural and not constructions.

Derrida shows how hierarchies aren’t necessary by inverting binary opposites, and one case in which he does this is with J. L. Austin’s approach to speech acts.  Austin talks about performatives being the basis of language by developing the idea of the descriptive fallacy (i.e., language’s primary purpose is to describe the world and everything else is derivative).  Derrida attacks Austin’s own attack on hierarchies by showing that Austin is creating a new hierarchy.  He sites the example of signatures.  These are a kind of performative in that your signature is a performance, an acceptance of something.  However, these are felicitous, because a child can’t sign a contract.  Austin submits to the hierarchy that he’s attacking.

Derrida objects to Saussure’s phonocentric structuralism, because phonocentrism privileges speech over other communication (another hierarchy).  Writing and speaking is emblematic of absence (sounds bad) and presence (sound good).  Derrida introduces a new concept to writing whereas the old concept was opposed to speech (i.e., you can’t write temporally and it represents absence).  This is called gram or différance.  Self-references aren’t possible.  In itself, it has no significance, its significant in relation to other things.  When something is put down in writing, it carries with it a trace of other things.  This trace contains the elements of a chain or system–all elements of the language.  The text carries the whole structure of the system.  None of them are either completely absent or present.  The gram is the most general concept of semiotics for Derrida.  It is the play of differences.  The play of differences is dynamic and ever changing.  It’s not in a static system as it was for the structuralists.  Poststructuralists object to the static dimension of structuralism.  So for Derrida and the poststructuralists, the signified and signifier are constantly slipping past one another, and there’s nothing outside language producing this slippage, which stands against the Cartesian ego and the idea of the fountainhead.  The effect of différance is that the psyche is the result, but not the cause.  We are what we are within a network and the past is present through absence.  Drawing on Heidegger, we are a projection into the future, with no terminus of meaning in sight.

5.         What does Eco mean by a code?  What types of codes were emphasized in lecture?  How does the “watergate” example show Eco’s concern with the distinction between mere communication and signification early in his career?  Why is this distinction grounds for considering him a humanist?

For Eco, a code is used for communicational purposes.  It can be true of false, and it can encompass different kinds of communication including language.  In class, there were three types of codes emphasized.  They are digital code, analog code, and processual code.  Digital code is based on absolute difference with no overland (e.g., it’s either a 1 or a 0).  Analog code is organic and is based on gradual approximation (e.g., color or early analog computers used for making comparisons based on sound waves or electrical impedance).  Processural codes are rules that structure relationships.  This includes discursive relationships (if and then) and correlational relationships (if and only if).

In addition to codes there are s-codes, or institutional codes.  An s-code is a system with a structuring syntax.  One example would be numbers, because s-codes are either right or wrong.  You can’t lie with them.  When one goes to a code, then you can find true/false statements.  Furthermore, if the capacity for deception is there, we have moved beyond the s-code into a code such as language.

Eco’s “Watergate Model” reveals a distinction between signification and communication.  In the example, an engineer downstream from a watershed between two mountains has an apparatus in place that alerts him when the watershed reaches a particular point of saturation, which is called the “danger level.”  Different kinds of information can be communicated to the engineer through this system such as how much water is above or below the danger level, what is the rate of change, and of course, is the water level greater or less than the danger level.  The apparatus is a buoy connected to a transmitter that sends a signal through a wire or channel downstream to the engineer’s receiver.  The signal received is translated through the receiver to indicate the information described above.  The problem with the system is that the channel is receptive to noise, which may result in incorrect messages from the receiver.  Therefore, the system should be complicated such that the signal sent is a more complex code that supplies redundancy essentially for error correction purposes and to obviate the influence of noise in the channel.  Now, the engineer in this system matters.  There are four things he’s considering under the code this system is based on.  Those are:  1) signals carried through the channel, 2) his/her own ideas about how to act/appropriate action based on the information presented by the receiver, 3) possible behavioral responses on the part of the engineer, and 4) a rule connecting elements from the three previous aspects of this system.  Eco considers the first three aspects of this system as s-codes, which are systems or structures that operate independently of the overall system.  The fourth aspect, or rule aspect, is a code, because of its correlative function to unify the three different aspects of the system.  The engineer brings about the correlation of the first three aspects into the code.  This example illustrates how Eco may be considered a humanist, because he shows how the engineer, the human element is necessary to turn communication into signification.  The code aspect of the system came about through the engineer’s presence, thought, and action.  The code is a semeiotic system, and that’s present only through the conditional placement of the rational human agent.


I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.


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