Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

industry ( Système de la mode, 1967). In 1975, he was elected to the Collège de France, where he taught both semiotics and literature. In his last decade, beginning with The Pleasure of the Text ( 1973), then A Lover's Discourse ( 1977), he became one of the first social theorists of world reputation to write frankly and powerfully about sexuality and desire in literature and social life. Barthes died tragically in a street accident in Paris.


Semiological Prospects

Roland Barthes ( 1964)

In Saussure: The (dichotomic) concept of language/speech is central in Saussure★ and was certainly a great novelty in relation to earlier linguistics which sought to find the causes of historical changes in the evolution of pronunciation, spontaneous associations and the working of analogy, and was therefore a linguistics of the individual act. In working out this famous dichotomy, Saussure started from the 'multiform and heterogeneous' nature of language, which appears at first sight as an unclassifiable reality the unity of which cannot be brought to light, since it partakes at the same time of the physical, the physiological, the mental, the individual and the social. . . .

The language (langue):A language is therefore, so to speak, language minus speech: it is at the same time a social institution and a system of values. As a social institution, it is by no means an act, and it is not subject to any premeditation. It is the social part of language, the individual cannot by himself either create or modify it; it is essentially a collective contract which one must accept in its entirety if one wishes to communicate. Moreover, this social product is autonomous, like a game with its own rules, for it can be handled only after a period of learning. As a system of values, a language is made of a certain number of elements, each one of which is at the same time the equivalent of a given quantity of things and a term of a larger function, in which are found, in a differential order, other correlative values: from the point of view of the language, the sign is like a coin which has the value of a certain amount of goods which it allows one to buy, but also has value in relation to other coins, in a greater or lesser degree. The institutional and the systematic aspect are of course connected: it is because a language is a system of contractual values (in part arbitrary, or, more exactly, unmotivated) that it resists the modifications coming from a single individual, and is consequently a social institution.

Speech (parole): In contrast to the language, which is both institution and system, speech is essentially an individual act of selection and actualization; it is made in the first place of the 'combination thanks to which the speaking subject can use the code of the language with a view to expressing his personal thought' (this extended speech could be called discourse), and secondly by the 'psycho-physical mechanisms which allow him to exteriorize these combinations.' It is certain that phonation, for instance, cannot be confused with the language; neither the institution nor the sys-

____________________
Excerpt from Annette Lauers and Colin Smith, trans., Elements of Semiology (Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, NY).

★The Saussurean notions of langue and parole present to the translator into English notorious difficulties, which their extension in the present work does nothing to alleviate. We have translated langue as 'a' or 'the language', except when the coupling with 'speech' makes the meaning clear. Les paroles, whether applied to several people or to several semiotic systems, has been translated by various periphrases which we hope do not obscure the identity of meaning. (Trans.)

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