October 13, 2006

Saussure, Peirce, Lacan, Derrida, and Baudrillard

Whereas Saussure saw the signifier and the signified (however arbitrary their relationship) as being as inseparable as the two sides of a piece of paper, poststructuralists have rejected the stable and predictable relationship embedded in his model. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote of 'the incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier' (Lacan 1977, 154) - he argued that there could be no anchoring of particular signifiers to particular signifieds - although this in itself is hardly contentious in the context of psychoanalysis. Jacques Derrida refers also to the 'freeplay' of signifiers: they are not fixed to their signifieds but point beyond themselves to other signifiers in an 'indefinite referral of signifier to signified' (Derrida 1978, 25). He championed the 'deconstruction' of western semiotic systems, denying that there were any ultimate determinable meanings. Whilst for Saussure the meaning of signs derives from how they differ from each other, Derrida coined the term différance to allude also to the way in which meaning is endlessly deferred. There is no 'transcendent signified' (Derrida 1978, 278-280; Derrida 1976, 20).
These notions were anticipated by Peirce in his version of 'unlimited semiosis', although he emphasized that in practice this potentially endless process is inevitably cut short by the practical constraints of everyday life (Gallie 1952, 126). Unlike Peirce, postmodernist theories grant no access to any reality outside signification. For Derrida, 'il n'y a riens hors du texte' ('there is nothing outside the text') - although this assertion need not necessarily be taken 'literally' (Derrida 1976, 158, 163). For materialist marxists and realists, postmodernist idealism is intolerable: 'signs cannot be permitted to swallow up their referents in a never-ending chain of signification, in which one sign always points on to another, and the circle is never broken by the intrusion of that to which the sign refers' (Lovell 1983, 16). Some theorists note that an emphasis on the unavoidability of signification does not necessitate denying any external reality. David Sless comments that 'I am not suggesting that the only things in the universe are signs or texts, or that without signs nothing could exist. However, I am arguing that without signs nothing is conceivable' (Sless 1986, 156). We may note in passing that since the phrase 'the empty (or free-floating) signifier' has become something of an academic 'sound-bite' the term itself is ironically in danger of being an empty signifier...
Such a schematization bears some similarity to that of the postmodernist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard interprets many representations as a means of concealing the absence of reality; he calls such representations 'simulacra' (or copies without originals) (Baudrillard 1984). He sees a degenerative evolution in modes of representation in which signs are increasingly empty of meaning:
These would be the successive phases of the image:
It is the reflection of a basic reality.
It masks and perverts a basic reality.
It masks the absence of a basic reality.
It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard 1988, 170)
Baudrillard argues that when speech and writing were created, signs were invented to point to material or social reality, but the bond between signifier and signified became eroded. As advertising, propaganda and commodification set in, the sign began to hide 'basic reality'. In the postmodern age of 'hyper-reality' in which what are only illusions in the media of communication seem very real, signs hide the absence of reality and only pretend to mean something. For Baudrillard, simulacra - the signs which characterize late capitalism - come in three forms: counterfeit (imitation) - when there was still a direct link between signifiers and their signifieds; production (illusion) - when there was an indirect link between signifier and signified; and simulation (fake) - when signifiers came to stand in relation only to other signifiers and not in relation to any fixed external reality. It is hardly surprising that Douglas Kellner has criticized Baudrillard as a 'semiological idealist' who ignores the materiality of sign production (cited in Stam 2000, 306). Baudrillard's claim that the Gulf War never happened is certainly provocative (Baudrillard 1995). Semiotics for Beginners Daniel Chandler Contents Page Preface Introduction

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