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9. the means of language - larvatus prodeo
March 15th, 2005
08:11 am


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9. the means of language

— for Eric Gans
    Quand il parlait, il ne levait jamais un bras ni un doigt : il avait tué la marionnette.
    — Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste
    When he spoke, he never raised his arm, nor his finger; he had killed the puppet.
    — Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste[0]

    It is customary to introduce a French subject in the history of ideas (l’histoire des mentalités) with the simile coined by the great mediaevalist Marc Bloch:[1] « Le bon historien, lui, ressemble à l’ogre de la légende. Là où il flaire la chair humaine, il sait que là est son gibier. » The good historian, says Bloch, resembles the legendary ogre: wherever he smells human flesh, there he knows to seek his prey. But the postmodern ogre is a conflicted creature. Undermining the cause of his own carnivorous appetite, he holds that the singularity of definitively modern works consists precisely in their fundamental ambiguity. In so far as historical events are molded by human hands, this singularity must extend to all subjects of modern history.
    Witness Ross Chambers epitomizing French literary modernism in the two key masterpieces of that movement, Charles Baudelaire’s verse collection Les fleurs du mal and Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary:[2]
Their writing has an elusive quality that resists interpretative closure and makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to locate a subject in which an “intended meaning” would have originated. As a result, reading modern works becomes a literally interminable procedure, and in both the text and its interpretation the insistence of unconscious forces ― that is, of desire ― becomes impossible to ignore.
Physicists teach that perpetual motion is impossible. Economists agonize over the prospects of full employment. Little do they know that resistance to interpretative closure is all it takes to ensure that the tribe of literary critics becomes fully employed in the manufacture of perpetual motion compelled by the insistence of desire and predicated upon the impossibilities of ignoring.
    For Chambers, this magical quality emerges from literary texts involving the pivotal date of 2 December, 1851, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the moment of fatal betrayal for the Second Republic. Nonetheless, it readily extends to all written accounts of the ensuing historical events. For their key historical evidence in our current possession primarily consists of written testimony. Indeed, the pride of place therein belongs to such observers of history as Baudelaire and Flaubert.
    As the highbrow culture trickles down, it vulgarizes the most rarefied affectation. Achillessulk and Hamlet’s indecision infect precocious children and corporate lifers. Medea’s infanticide and Emma Bovary’s suicide replay nightly on Fox TV. Shopgirls give in to latent urges vending their way from the pages of turgid Russian classics. Violent mannerisms hitherto available only to strung out bohemians wrack tranquil suburban communities. The malaise of modernity threatens to corrupt all historical evidence, to subvert all legal codes, to contaminate all written records. Resistance to interpretive closure is about to infect laundry lists and drug prescriptions. Only the critical conscience stands in the way of universal chaos. It submits the unconscious forces to moral scrutiny of their proceedings. It imposes values on the demands of desire. It yields a position for interpreting the meaning of the texts. This imposition is not arbitrary. By definition, criticism distinguishes itself from free association by proceeding from a standpoint. Any such standpoint presupposes underlying values. These values constrain the allowable range of meaning. They need not banish all ambiguities. Nor do they assign the origin of literary meaning to any subject, let alone one a priori identifiable with its author. The range of textual meaning emerges through the failures of its indeterminacy. Desire is pervasive. Criticism is inevitable. The choice falls between serving the desires of the critic and deferring to the desires of the author. As in all affairs of the heart, it defines itself through combat or negotiation. The terms of this definition through combat may be agonistic or antagonistic; through negotiation, venal or equitable. Yet the competitive aspect of critical resolution remains unavoidable in any of its variations.
    Where the postmodern perpetuum mobile fails in reading, it succeeds in writing. The didactic impulse flaunted in editorial columns and sublated in historical treatises, affords only a clandestine inspiration for poetry:[3]
“Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain consciousness until the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt.”
― Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor
        Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
        Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
        The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief
        Worry of wheels along the street outside
        Where bridal London bows the other way,
        And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
        Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
        Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,
        Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
        Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
        Console you if I could. What can be said,
        Except that suffering is exact, but where
        Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
        For you would hardly care
        That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
        Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
        To burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic.
                ― Philip Larkin, 20 February 1950
The poem appears in the book entitled The Less Deceived. Between his titles and his message, the poet will neither suffer consolation for his misery, nor seek to console others in their wretchedness. He spells out his refusal above, in addressing a disconsolate rape victim. He crowns it by eliciting discomfort through a contrast between her lesser deception in unconscious suffering and the greater self-deception of the rapist bursting into fulfillment’s desolate attic. In posing the question that where desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic, Larkin appears to lead his reader towards an instance of the critical claim destined to be taken up by Chambers. To the extent that it may be so, his deconstruction of desire opens the way to making excuses for the rapist, controlled by the insistence of unconscious forces.
    The practice of deconstruction opens up a more overt entryway for excuses. In its first chapter touting « la fin du livre et le commencement de l’écriture », the end of the book and the beginning of writing, Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie argues that « en dernière instance, la différence entre le signifié et le signifiant n’est rien ». In the final instance, the difference between the signifier and the signified is nothing:[4]
L’évidence rassurante dans laquelle a dû s’organiser et doit vivre encore la tradition occidentale serait donc celle-ci : l’ordre du signifié n’est jamais contemporain, est au mieux l’envers ou le parallèle subtilement décalé ― le temps d’un souffle ― de l’ordre du signifiant. Et le signe doit être l’unité d’une hétérogénéité, puisque le signifié (sens ou chose, noème ou réalité) n’est pas en soi un signifiant, une trace : en tout cas n’est pas constitué dans son sens par son rapport à la trace possible. L’essence formelle du signifié est la présence, et le privilège de sa proximité au logos comme phonè est le privilège de la présence. Réponse inéluctable dès lorsqu’on se demande « qu’est-ce que le signe ? », c’est-à dire lorsqu’on soumet le signe à la question de l’essence, au « ti esti ». L’« essence formelle » du signe ne peut être déterminée qu’à partir de la présence. On ne peut contourner cette réponse, sauf à recuser la forme même de la question et commencer à penser que le signe est cette chose mal nommée, la seule, qui échappe à la question institutrice de la philosophie : « Qu’est-ce que... ? » The reassuring evidence wherein the Western tradition had to organize itself and must continue to live even now, would therefore be as follows: The order of the signified is never contemporaneous, is at best the inverse or the parallel subtly displaced ― displaced by the time of a breath ― from the order of the signifier. And the sign must be the unity of a heterogeneity, since the signified (sense or thing, noema or reality) is not in itself a signifier, a trace: at any rate is not constituted in its sense by its relation to a possible trace. The formal essence of the signified is the presence, and the privilege of its proximity to the logos as phone is the privilege of the presence. This is the inevitable response as soon as one inquires: “What is the sign?”, that is to say, when one submits the sign to the question of the essence, to the “ti esti”. The “formal essence” of the sign cannnot be determined, except in terms of the presence. One cannot avoid this response, except by recusing the very form of the question and beginning to think that the sign is that ill-named thing, the only one, that escapes the founding question of philosophy: “What is...?”
Derrida’s discussion is provocative, and deserving of more attention than has been accorded hitherto within the confines of analytic philosophy. One reason for its neglect is a failure of nerve. In its treatment of the core issues of meaning, it depends upon the most fundamental traditions in Western philosophy. These traditions are reachable through doctrinary sloganeering applied to a classic example.
    Men use words meaningfully. They can do so in ignorance of the nature, identity, and the very existence of the things for which they are supposed to stand. They must do so to communicate as finite beings with limited knowledge of their surroundings. Thus linguistic expression operates in a provisional autonomy. Thus it stands apart from the world that it names, describes, and characterizes. The autonomy of expression is manifest in the human capacity to discuss things that fail to exist. Many legitimate subjects of discussion not merely fail to exist in reality, but do so on the pain of logical contradiction. The round square may or may not be a full-fledged object of thought, but there is no doubt of its being a permissible topic of speech. The autonomy of expression is provisional, in so far as language is a physical object. As such, it is subject to all causal laws of nature, howsoever remote be their application from reliable prediction of linguistic behavior. Both of these aspects of language are integral and obvious elements of the human perceptual and cognitive predicament. They are neither obscure nor debatable. They will remain in place until and unless both human self-knowledge and understanding of nature advance to the point of predicting mental and social events and warranting the success of reference in advance. This prospect seems to be far removed. And yet men seek to fix the quintessence of thought in speech, striving to be understood and approved by others. This quandary underlies all their discourse.
    The conventions of modern literature license the celebration of cruelty unconscionable in all other contemporary contexts. It was not always so. The ambivalence of Larkin’s poem, its refusal to take sides between the violator and the violated, is alien to classic literature, which takes violation as the starting point of guilt and expiation unfolding with mechanical necessity. Thus it is said that Laïus (Λαΐος), fated to become the king of Thebes (Θῆβαι) and beget his own killer, first distinguished and besmirched himself by the invention of pederasty. According to Euripides’ eponymous lost play, Chrysippus (Χρύσιππος), the illegitimate son of Pelops (Πέλοψ), king of Pisa (Πῖσα), suffered the brunt of Laïus’ lust while the future Theban king was visiting his father. When Laïus was training Chrysippus in driving the chariot, he abducted the boy and raped him.[5] Feeling shame from his rape, Chrysippus fell on his sword. Pelops then laid a curse upon Laïus: that he may never have a son; that if he does, may he be destroyed by his son. The god Apollo warned Laïus of his fate.[6] Accordingly, upon ascending to the Theban throne, Laïus resolved to frustrate his curse. But then one night he got drunk and careless. He might have confused his wife Iocasta with a boy.[7] When a son was born to the royal couple, Laïus pierced his ankles and ordered his shepherd to expose the infant child in the mountains. The child was rescued by the neatherds of Polybus (Πόλυβος), king of Corinth (Κόρινθος). They brought him to queen Periboea (Περίβοια). Being childless, she adopted him and passed him off as her own, and after she had healed his ankles she named him Oedipus (Οἰδίπους) or swollen foot, commemorating his injury. When the boy grew up and excelled his fellows in strength, they spitefully twitted him with being supposititious. Oedipus inquired of Periboea to no avail. He went to Delphi and inquired about his true parents. The oracle told him not to go to his native land, because he would murder his father and lie with his mother. On hearing that, and believing himself to be the son of his nominal parents, Oedipus left Corinth. As he was riding in a chariot through Phocis (Φωκίς) he fell in with Laïus driving in a chariot in a certain narrow road. Laïus was on his way to Delphi (Δελφοί), intending to consult the oracle for reassurance that the child that had been exposed had perished. And when Polyphontes (Πολυφόντης), the herald of Laïus, ordered him to make way and killed one of his horses because he disobeyed and delayed, Oedipus in a rage killed both Polyphontes and Laïus.[8]
    Oedipus came to Thebes. Meanwhile, Laïus was buried by Damasistratus, king of Plataea, and Creon (Κρέων), son of Menoeceus and brother of Iocasta, succeeded to the kingdom. In his reign a heavy calamity befell Thebes. For Hera sent the Sphinx (Σφίγξ, “the throttler”), whose mother was Echidna and her father Typhon; and she had the face of a woman, the breast and feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. And having learned a riddle from the Muses, she sat on Mount Phicium, and propounded it to the Thebans. And the riddle was this: What has one voice and yet becomes four-footed, then two-footed, and then three-footed? The Theban oracle declared that they should be rid of the Sphinx whenever they had solved her riddle. They often met and discussed the answer, and when they could not find it the Sphinx would snatch away one of them and gobble him up. Many Thebans had perished in this way, and last of all perished Creon’s son Haemon. Then Creon proclaimed that whoever should solve the riddle, would get both the kingdom and his sister Iocasta, the widow of Laïus. On hearing that, Oedipus found the solution. He declared that the riddle of the Sphinx referred to man: as a babe he crawls on four limbs, as an adult he walks upright, and in his old age he supports himself with a staff. Upon hearing this solution, Sphinx threw herself from the citadel.

Gustave Moreau, Œdipe et le Sphinx, 206.5×105cm, 1864, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Creon was true to his word. Thus Oedipus unwittingly succeeded to his late father’s kingdom, married his mother, and begat sons and daughters by her. When the secret afterwards came to light, Iocasta hanged herself in a noose, and Oedipus was driven from Thebes, after he had put out his eyes and cursed his sons, who saw him cast out of the city without lifting a hand to help him.

Charles Jalabert, Œdipe et Antigone, 1843, Musée de Beaux Arts, Marseille
And having come with his youngest daughter Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη) to Colonus in Attica, where is the precinct of the Eumenides, he sat down there as a suppliant, was kindly received by Theseus, and died not long afterwards.
    Young Oedipus hears the taunts of his playmates. He comes to his foster mother Periboea to inquire about his descent. He believes that Periboea is his true mother. The queen of Corinth is reticent. Oedipus learns that his native land is a danger to him, and he is a danger to his parents. In seeking to avoid his native land, he comes to Thebes. He believes that Corinth is his native land. He is mistaken. His native land is Thebes. In his own mind, Oedipus does not seek to avoid Thebes. His parents live there. He believes that his parents live in Corinth. He is mistaken. In seeking to depart from his parents, he approaches them. In his own mind, Oedipus does not seek to approach his parents. In aiming to strike down the arrogant stranger, he murders his father. The arrogant stranger is his father. In his own mind, Oedipus does not aim to strike down his father. In agreeing to marry Iocasta, he consummates his curse by lying with his mother. Iocasta is his mother. In his own mind, Oedipus does not agree to marry his mother. He becomes distraught through discovering the truth. The perfection of hindsight available in his blindness fails to relieve the exactitude of his suffering.
    The man of action seeks his fortune. The nature of his quest does not admit of a resolution in the privacy of his room. Even if he could describe his goal at rest, once set in motion, he would be unable to identify it at a distance. Identity is a slippery thing. At first, in Corinth, young Oedipus believes that he can readily identify his native city and his parents. He believes that he knows them. He is wrong. Unbeknownst to him, Thebes is his birthplace; the vexatious stranger is his father; the widowed queen whom he marries and with whom he fathers four children is his mother. He drives himself towards everything that he seeks to avoid. Whatever is true of Laïus, must equally be true of Oedipus’ father, the man whom Oedipus seeks to avoid harming, and the stranger whom Oedipus aims to strike down. Whatever is true of Iocasta, must equally be true of Oedipus’ mother, the woman with whom Oedipus seeks to avoid lying, and the widowed queen whom Oedipus agrees to marry. Thus the manifest truth of Oedipus wanting to kill the stranger and marry the widowed queen entails the unobvious truth of Oedipus wanting to kill his father and marry his mother. So far, the situation seems tractable. Although Oedipus is entitled to deny wanting to kill his father and marry his mother until and unless he finds himself in a position to understand their identity to Iocasta and Laïus, we may justly insist that it is a true consequence of the factual identity, applied to the transparent account of Oedipus’ desires. But the truth of the unexpected revelation does not make it any less startling to the man confronted with convincing evidence of his unwitting fulfillment of an infamous prophecy. As well as he may know his own wife and the mother of his children, he does not know her as his own mother. Therein lays the problem of the content of human knowledge.
    Eubulides of Megara, the contemporary adversary of Aristotle, and very likely the most accomplished inventor of puzzles in the history of logic, distilled Oedipus’ predicament in his account of larvatus, or the masked man, driving a wedge between the elusive object of his uncertain cognition and its fleshly material substratum.[9] As formulated by Eubulides, though I know my father, though he is the masked man, I still may fail to know the masked man; hence I still may fail to know my father as the masked man. Mutatis mutandis, though Oedipus knows his wife, though she is his mother, he still may fail to know his mother; hence he still may fail to know his wife as his mother. The schools disagreed on the way of solving this paradox. For the peripatetics agreed with the Megarians that all knowledge referred to universals (καθόλου).[10] However, Aristotle also insisted that the universal was identical to the genus (γένος) and inseparable from the concrete particulars that exemplified it.[11] By contrast, Eubulides posited an unbridgeable chasm between the thing and its ideal representation. Thus the story of the masked man could be taken as supporting the thesis of radical discontinuity between the material objects of perception and the corresponding abstract objects of cognition. For at any point prior to Oedipus’ certain recognition of the identities of Laïus and Iocasta, it is conceivable that a gust of wind would scatter its clothing, leaving behind makeshift scarecrows. And as far as he can tell, the same fate could befall any object of his acquaintance.
    This claim requires a crucial qualification in relation to a robust notion of acquaintance. In drawing his distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description, Bertrand Russell identifies a class of logically proper names. These names denote entities bereft of logical complexity, or individuals. Russell insists that the cognitive relation of the user of a logically proper name, to the simple object named thereby, ensures the existence of the latter:[12]
I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e., when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgement, but the sort which constitutes presentation. In fact, I think the relation of subject and object which I call acquaintance is simply the converse of the relation of object and subject which constitutes presentation.
In the terminology of the mediaeval schoolmen, acquaintance is a relation of the type de re, directly related to the thing itself, rather than de dicto, related to the thing as represented by a constituent term in a proposition. On Russell’s view, there are very few logically proper names. Only deictic expressions such as ‘this’, ‘that’, and ‘I’ count as such, in so far as their utterance guarantees the success of reference.
    In modern philosophy, Russell’s notion of acquaintance is rooted in the Cartesian distinction between the knowledge of things and the knowledge of truths.[13]

Bertrand Russell
In his understanding, Oedipus prefigures the Cartesian predicament of the hero of the Meditations, who gropes about blindly for the certainty of truth, unsure even of constituting any thing by his person. The lesson to be learned in his situation, that man must withhold his claims of knowledge of inconstant physical things, in so far as they hide their essence behind the veil of accident (συμβεβηκός), in the words of Aristotle, “something which may either belong or not belong to any one and the self-same thing.”[14] As will become clear in the sequel, the sameness of the thing spans both different moments in time and variously determined counterfactual situations. So the Stagirite replies to the larvatus and similar puzzles of knowledge under a description as follows:
All arguments such as the following depend upon accident. ‘Do you know what I am going to ask you?’ ‘Do you know the man who is approaching?’, or ‘the man in the mask?’ ‘Is the statue your work of art?’ or ‘Is the dog your father?’ ‘Is the product of a small number with a small number a small number?’ For it is evident in all these cases that there is no necessity for what is true of the accident to be true of the object as well. For only to things that are indistinguishable and one in substance does it seem that all the same attributes belong; whereas in the case of a good thing, to be good is not the same as to be going to be the subject of a question; nor in the case of a man approaching, or wearing a mask, is to be approaching the same thing as to be Coriscus, so that if I know Coriscus, but do not know the man who is approaching, it still isn’t the case that I both know and do not know the same man; nor, again, if this is mine and is also the work of art, is it therefore my work of art, but my property or thing or something else. The solution is the same in the other cases as well.[15]
But how can Oedipus distinguish the substantial aspects of his spouse from mere accident? If, pace Aristotle, to be Oedipus’ wife is not the same thing as to be Oedipus’ mother, and moreover neither of these is the same thing as to be that woman whose lifeless body now hangs before him? If knowledge is to merit its name, we must never ascribe it to the knower without also ascribing thereto a just warrant for knowing. But what sort of warrant can the accursed man claim for knowing the thing that his wife is, over and above taking stock of assorted facts involving properties that she happens to satisfy accidentally? For that matter, what sort of warrant can he claim for knowing the thing that is himself, given that he appears to know her own substance only through similar accidents?[16] To answer this question, we must abandon the wretched king in the midst of his tragic instance of recognition (ἀναγνώρισις), in order to attend to the true and indubitable things of philosophical modernity.[17]
    Aristotle defined the subject matter of logic as concerned with the nature of a proposition (πρότασις), a term (ὅρος), and a syllogism (συλλογισμός).[18] He held that the syllogism was a discourse (λόγoς), in which certain things being stated, something other than what is stated follows of necessity (ἐξ ἀνάγκης) from their being so. The Stoic thought applied the Megarian tradition to logic by working in their distinction between the concrete thing and its abstract cognitive counterpart, developing it into a complete theory of meaning. This theory associated with each signifying, indicating, or meaningful expression (σημαῖνον), both its incorporeal significate (σημαινόμενον), necessarily indicated, made known, or expressed thereby, and apprehended by the mind as its content, and the material referent (τυγχάνον), the part of external reality contingently corresponding thereto.[19] The Stoics held this triadic division to arise in connection with all parts of speech, be they nouns, verbs, or connectives. The proposition (λεκτόν), expressed by such speech, could then enter into a demonstrative system (ἀπόδειξις), a logically valid argument departing from true premisses to reveal a non-evident conclusion. The Stoics applied the same term logos metonymically to any argument of this nature, both demonstrative and undemonstrated, (ἀναπόδεικτος). It is this last technical meaning that was destined to have the greatest effect on the course of the philosophical thought.
    According to the classic definition given by Charles Saunders Peirce, “a sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen. “Idea” is here to be understood in a sort of Platonic sense, very familiar in everyday talk; I mean in the sense in which we say that one man catches another man’s idea, in which we say that when a man recalls what he was thinking of at some previous time, he recalls the same idea, and in which when a man continues to think anything, say for a tenth of a second, in so far as the thought continues to agree with itself during that time, that is to have a like content, it is the same idea, and is not at each instant of the interval a new idea.”[20]

C.S. Peirce by the well at his home Arisbe

    Peirce’s definition is a Platonic reformulation of a theory that dates back to the Stoics. According to this analysis of meaning, there exist two kinds of signs: commemorative and indicative. The former are derived from an association between two events, established through an earlier experience. In accordance with their name, they depend on memory. The latter are independent from memory. They indicate something not wholly evident, inaccessible to the senses.[21]
    In a concrete example of a commemorative sign, the string of physical tokens <‘y’, ‘o’, ‘n’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘r’, ‘ ’, ‘p’, ‘u’, ‘p’, ‘p’, ‘y’> is the signifier, the concept of yonder puppy is the signified, and yonder puppy as the thing. What Derrida is claiming cannot be true of this stratification of meaning. The signifier is the concrete event of speech or writing. It is the phoneme, a sound pattern at the time of its emission, or the grapheme, a graphic pattern at the time of its inscription. It is as concrete, as readily experienced through the senses, as a coin of the realm. By contrast, the signified exists outside of space and time. It is as intangible as a number. As a prerequisite of thought, the signified must enter into the physical or mental states of the thinker. It must act among the causes of events in his life. But as an abstract entity, it can neither be identified with, nor explained in terms of, physical or mental constituents that possess spatial extent and temporal duration. It lacks the palpable presence manifested by phonemes or graphemes that comprise the signifier. Its absence is not a matter of its lack, but one of individual failure.
    A similar condition binds God. If God is what He is understood to be, He cannot absent himself on catastrophic occasions, or excuse Himself from tedious circumstances. If God is not everywhere, at all times, He is no such thing. The Christian doctrine proclaims the mystery of divine incarnation. But no sleight of hands can explain the reality, if it is such, of divine disappearance. Deus absconditus is the end of faith.
    The sign is the thing presented. In order to be what it is, it must be physically available to an actual or potential audience. No such quality can be imputed to the signified that the sign represents. Significance is present only in so far as it is grasped by the intellect of a party to communication. It is absurd to talk about displacement, in the sense of a spatial or temporal gap between “the order of the signifier” and “the order of the signified”. The former relation is physical. It must be available to the senses in order for the signifier to function as such. It may be audible, visible, or palpable; it may even be olfactive or gustative, if scents or flavors are put to use as signs in communication. The order of the signifier commonly arises from the temporal order of phonemes or the spatial order of graphemes. Its equivalence relation is physical congruence. By contrast, the order of the signified is logical. It cannot be heard, seen, or felt by the organs of perception. It can only be grasped by the mind. Its equivalence relation is synonymy. It is ordered by implication or logical containment. For example, the concept of yonder puppy contains the indexical concepts of there and of now. Accordingly, the expression of this concept implies a Russellian relation of acquaintance that constitutes a presentation of the object of demonstration to its demonstrating subject. It also contains the concept of a young domesticated carnivorous mammal canis familiaris. Unlike the indexical concepts, this descriptive concept applies to the object to in virtue of a judgment made by the subject, that the object satisfies the conditions of being a puppy; and it applies only to the extent that it satisfies this judgment. The same concept is moreover figuratively associated, in ways that we may hope some day to reduce to logical understanding, with the concepts of conceited or inexperienced youth or man’s best friend. The physical order of the signifier is incommensurable with the orders of logical implication and rhetorical embellishment. Accordingly, the signified can be said to precede the signifier only in the metaphysical sense of its intrinsic nature. It is a necessary component in the Platonic account of signification.
    Let us suppose to the contrary that the string of tokens <‘y’, ‘o’, ‘n’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘r’, ‘ ’, ‘p’, ‘u’, ‘p’, ‘p’, ‘y’> nowise differs from its associated concept of yonder puppy. In order to be consistent with the canonical account of meaning, this view must be squared with the canonical definition of a sign as “aliquid stat pro aliquo” or something standing for something else. To this end, Derrida’s denial of difference must be taken in kind rather than in degree. Otherwise no signifier could signify anything strictly distinct from itself. So a charitable interpretation of Derrida’s claim would be that the signifier does not differ from the signified in kind. As long as the physical realm has not been “put under erasure”, if the former is physical, so must be the latter. One problem with this view is that it fails to leave any room for the origins of language. Any account of meaning must explain it generally, as a historically evolved capacity of thitherto inarticulate beings to designate things and convey their properties and relations to each other and themselves. Likewise, it must explain meaning in its particular instances of revolutionary innovation precipitated by thitherto unconventional and unaccounted for linguistic practice.
    As ostension engenders significance, it engages the highest faculty of human mind:[22]
The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? He mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.

Buddha’s finger bone
Put yourself in the shoes of the first man called upon to designate yonder puppy by a proper name, prior to the discovery of any other linguistic device. (It should go without saying that this scenario is compatible with any other choice of the hypothetical object of the original dubbing.) Thus instead of your customary inarticulate grunts, you muster the word “Fido”. From the hypothesis, your word is the very first signifier in the human history, and therefore a sign, that is something standing for something else, namely the signified concept of Fido. Again, from the hypothesis, there are no other signifiers around as yet. In what sense could the formal essence of the signified be the “presence”, and the privilege of its proximity to the logos as phone, or concrete significant speech, be the privilege of the presence? In so far as your circumstances defer all possible explanations of your signification to the future, the signified of “Fido” is absent, contrary to what Derrida claims. Indeed, consider that if the signifier “Fido” does not stand for a contemporaneous and therefore transcendent “something else” that it signifies, but merely serves as a proxy for other signifiers, be they preceding or succeeding, in our scenario they can only be the latter. So now suppose that shortly after your dramatic discovery of language, your tongue is scorched as you enjoy the deliverances of your prior discovery of fire, and no human successor of yours ever has the wherewithal to recover your accomplishment. It follows that your one and only significant deployment of the name “Fido” was meaningless, contrary to the initial hypothesis. Thus Derrida stands refuted.

Leonardo da Vinci, Studi di proporzioni della testa di un cane, Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Firenze, Italia

    Morals follow logic. If the nature of the sign were severable from the causes of its production, there could be no moral responsibility for the content of one’s words. Derrida argues that an utterance or sign will function even in the absence of intention to signify, or in the absence of any possible referent whatsoever. His argument conflates the edges of the semiotic triangle. The absence of any possible referent for a signifier that expresses an absurdity is a commonplace of mathematical reasoning in reductio ad absurdum. On the other hand, the absence of intention associated with signification by primordial ostension would preempt the possibility of interpreting any deixis implied in any associated definite description and the tense of any associated predicative copula. In the normal course of events, saying that the sky is blue conveys certain information about the ambient weather conditions. But it is easy to imagine special cases in which an utterance of the same type might serve instead as an invitation to a lover or a warning to a spy. The recipient’s interpretive capacity to arbitrate between these alternate possibilities always depends on his connection to cause and context. Whereas the perpetual possibility of a sign being produced or functioning in the absence of those presences that would determine the original meaning for which it stands proxy, does not in and of itself suggest that the sign so reproduced either would be or could be relevantly equivalent to its prototype. On the contrary, if the very nature of a sign is that of something standing for something else, it cannot but be terminally vacated by dirempting the signifier from the causes and contexts that connect it to the signified, just as man’s nature as a living being would be terminated by decapitation:[23]
19. Nempe imprimis hîc adverto magnam esse differentiam inter mentem & corpus, in eo quòd corpus ex naturâ suâ sit semper divisibile, mens autem plane indivisibilis; nam sane cùm hanc considero, sive meipsum quatenus sum tantùm res cogitans, nullas in me partes possum distinguere, sed rem plane unam & integram me esse intelligo; & quamvis toti corpori tota mens unita esse videatur, abscisso tamen pede, vel brachio, vel quâvis aliâ corporis parte, nihil ideo de mente subductum esse cognosco; neque etiam facultates volendi, sentiendi, intelligendi &c. ejus partes dici possunt, quia una & eadem mens est quae vult, quae sentit, quae intelligit. Contrà verò nulla res corporea sive extensa potest a me cogitari, quam non facile in partes cogitatione dividam, atque hoc ipso illam divisibilem esse intelligam: quod unum sufficeret ad me docendum, mentem a corpore omnino esse diversam, si nondum illud aliunde satis scirem. 19. Pour commencer donc cet examen, je remarque ici, premièrement, qu’il y a une grande différence entre l’esprit et le corps, en ce que le corps, de sa nature, est toujours divisible, et que l’esprit est entièrement indivisible. Car en effet, lorsque je considère mon esprit, c’est-à-dire moi-même en tant que je suis seulement une chose qui pense, je n’y puis distinguer aucunes parties, mais je me conçois comme une chose seule et entière. Et quoique tout l’esprit semble être uni à tout le corps, toutefois un pied, ou un bras, ou quelque autre partie étant séparée de mon corps, il est certain que pour cela il n’y aura rien de retranché de mon esprit. Et les facultés de vouloir, de sentir, de concevoir, etc., ne peuvent pas proprement être dites ses parties: car le même esprit s’emploie tout entier à vouloir, et aussi tout entier à sentir, à concevoir, etc. Mais c’est tout le contraire dans les choses corporelles ou étendues: car il n’y en a pas une que je ne mette aisément en pièces par ma pensée, que mon esprit ne divise fort facilement en plusieurs parties et par conséquent que je ne connaisse être divisible. Ce qui suffirait pour m’enseigner que l’esprit ou l’âme de l’homme est entièrement différente du corps, si je ne l’avais déjà d’ailleurs assez appris. 19. To commence this examination accordingly, I here remark, in the first place, that there is a vast difference between mind and body, in respect that body, from its nature, is always divisible, and that mind is entirely indivisible. For in truth, when I consider the mind, that is, when I consider myself in so far only as I am a thinking thing, I can distinguish in myself no parts, but I very clearly discern that I am somewhat absolutely one and entire; and although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, yet, when a foot, an arm, or any other part is cut off, I am conscious that nothing has been taken from my mind; nor can the faculties of willing, perceiving, conceiving, etc., properly be called its parts, for it is the same mind that is exercised [all entire] in willing, in perceiving, and in conceiving, etc. But quite the opposite holds in corporeal or extended things; for I cannot imagine any one of them [how small soever it may be], which I cannot easily sunder in thought, and which, therefore, I do not know to be divisible. This would be sufficient to teach me that the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body, if I had not already been apprised of it on other grounds.
Descartes argues that the body stands in contrast to the mind. The body is divisible, whereas the mind is unitary. In so far as the nature of the sign partakes of mental relations, it inherits this indivisibility in the relation between the signifier and the signified. And in so far as the human identity is involved both in the body and in the mind, it comes to depend on the integrity of connections between them.
    These existential interrogations come to the fore in The Tenant (Le Locataire). Roman Polanski’s 1976 film is based on the novel Le locataire chimérique by artist, writer, actor, and Holocaust survivor Roland Topor. It treats loneliness and isolation in a way that plays against the reflection of the Cartesian self. Oppressed by the hostility of his neighbors, disturbed by the free-floating menace, feeling his fate linked with that of the suicide that preceded his tenancy in the apartment that he occupies, his timid and distressed character Trelkovsky comes to question his identity:[24]
À partir de quel moment, l’individu n’est-il plus celui que l’on pense ? On m’enlève un bras, fort bien. Je dis : moi et mon bras. On m’enlève les deux, je dis : moi et mes deux bras. On m’ôte les jambes, je dis : moi et mes membres. On m’ôte mon estomac, mon foie, mes reins, à supposer que cela soit possible, je dis : moi et mes viscères. On me coupe la tête : que dire ? Moi et mon corps, ou moi et ma tête ? De quel droit ma tête, qui n’est qu’un membre après tout, s’arrogerait-elle le titre de « moi » ? From which moment is the individual no longer that which one thinks? They remove my arm, very well. I say: me and my arm. They remove both of my arms; I say: me and my two arms. They remove my legs; I say: me and my members. They remove my stomach, my liver, my kidneys, supposing that that is possible; I say: me and my internal organs. They cut off my head: what to say? Me and my body, or me and my head? By what right my head, which after all is only one member, would assume the title of “me”?
A living human being who becomes severed from his head, ceases being what he is, and turns into a lifeless corpse. In other words, it is not in the nature, “ti esti”, of the living human being to be severable from its head, on pain of ceasing to be what it is. Similarly, if the property of being severable from the causes of its production belonged to the nature, “ti esti”, of the sign, such severing could proceed without undermining what the sign is, namely aliquid stat pro aliquo, or something standing for something else. But as out thought experiment demonstrates, the former “something” cannot be severed from the causes of its production in the general case, without thereby destroying the relation of signification responsible for making it stand for the latter “something else”. We have described a scenario wherein these causes alone can determine the fact and the nature of such standing. In other words, the meaning of a linguistic sign is teleologically aimed and contextually situated. And in so far as that is the case, any account that determines meaning must refer to the causes and circumstances of its bearer’s production.
    Plato recognized that writing, abandoned by its author, is illegitimate. “It always needs its father to attend to it, being quite unable to defend itself or to attend to its own needs.”[25] Unlike the living logos that is founded on knowledge, writing is helpless, saying the same thing over and over again.[26] But literature occupies a unique place among the arts, in that the existence of a literary work does not depend on the existence of any particular embodiment thereof. Indeed, a purist may well maintain that its existence continues even after the destruction of every such embodiment. Without undermining Walter Benjamin’s argument of the loss of “aura”, conditioned by mechanical reproduction of the work of art,[27] it bears noting that the invention of the printing press has imparted a peculiar kind of universality onto the literary work, whereby its very mode of existence is intrinsically involved with an abstraction. The fine art aficionado contemplating a painting, a drawing, or a statue, the music lover enjoying a symphony performance, the theatergoer watching a play, all enter in phenomenal contact with the essence of the work. By contrast, the essence of writing, a medium characterized by the act of abandonment, can only be grasped by man’s angelic side, the Cartesian res cogitans.

A representation of how the visual system perceives objects, in L’Homme de René Descartes, Paris: Charles Angot, 1664


[0] See Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste, in Œuvres II, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1960, p. 17. Unless noted otherwise, all translations are by MZ.

[1] See Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l’histoire ou le métier d’historien, Paris, Armand Colin, 1993 (written in 1941, first published in 1949), p. 51.

[2] See “Literature Deteritorrialized” in Denis Hollier, editor, A New History of French Literature, pp. 711-712.

[3] See Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived, Marvell Press, 1977.

[4] See Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (DLG), Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967, p. 31.

[5] See Apollodorus, Library and Epitome, 3.5.5; Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV.33.

[6] See Aristophanes, Frogs, 1184-1185.

[7] Ἰοκάστη was alternatively called Ἐπικάστη by Homer in the Odyssey 11.271-280.

[8] See Apollodorus, Library and Epitome, 3.5.7.

[9] See Lucian, Vivarum Auctio, 22; compare the illuminating discussion in Evert Beth, The Foundations of Mathematics, Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1959, pp. 20-21, and the historical background in William and Martha Kneale, The Development of Logic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 114-115.

[10] See Aristotle, Anal. post., De interp. 17a, and Metaphysics 7.1036a.

[11] See Metaphysics 5.1014b, Metaphysics 9.1049b and Metaphysics 7.1038b-1039, Metaphysics 13.1086a.

[12] See Bertrand Russell, “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 11 (1910–1911), pp. 108–128. Reprinted in Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, London: Routledge, 1992, volume 6, p. 148.

[13] See Bertrand Russell, Principles of Philosophy I, 48-9.

[14] See Topics I.5, 102b6-7, The Complete Works of Aristotle (CW), Princeton University Press, 1995, I: 170. Also see Metaphysics 5.1017a11, Metaphysics 5.1025a31, and Metaphysics 10.1052a18.

[15] See Sophistical Refutations 24, 179a32-179b6, CW I: 305-6. (Aristotle clearly commits himself to an intensional view of attributes, whereupon the identity of being P is not exhausted by the identity of the class of things that P.

[16] So compare Descartes, writing to his student Clerselier: “Il y a grande différence [entre distinguere et abstrahere]; car en distinguant une substance de ces accidents, on doit considérer l’un et l’autre, ce qui sert beaucoup à la connaître; au lieu que si on sépare seulement par abstraction cette substance de ses accidents, c’est-à-dire si on la considére toute seule sans penser à eux, cela empêche qu’on la puisse si bien connaître, a cause que c’est par les accidents que la nature de la substance est manifesté.” AT IX.216, cited in Martial Gueroult, Descartes, Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1992, I: p. 56.

[17] The Aristotelian analysis of recognition, “a change from ignorance to knowledge,” accompanied in its finest instances by a reversal of fortune, identifies it as one of the key events of classic tragedy. See the Poetics 11, 1452a22-1452b8, and Terence Cave, <;i>Recognitions</i>, Oxford University Press, 1990.

[18] See the Prior Analytics I.1, 24a, CW I, p. 39.

[19] See Umberto Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 29-33 and John M. Rist, Stoics, Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1978, pp. 77ff. Benson Mates’ pioneering 1953 study, Stoic Logic, Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1953, remains the best introduction to its subject matter.

[20] See C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers (CP), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960, Vol. II, p. 228.

[21] See Umberto Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, p. 31.

[22] See the Shurangama Sutra.

[23] Renatus Cartesius, Meditatio VI: De rerum materialium existentiâ, & reali mentis a corpore distinctione; René Descartes, Méditation Sixième : De l’existence des choses matérielles, et de la réelle distinction entre l’âme et le corps de l’homme; Meditation VI: Of the existence of material things, and of the real distinction between the mind and body of man.

[24] See Le Locataire, by Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, Roland Topor.

[25] See Phaedrus 275e.

[26] See Phaedrus 276d-277d.

[27] See “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, pp. 217-252.

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