Monday, 14 May 2012

Of Signifiers and Signifieds

At the turn of the previous century, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure worked out certain theories about his field of work, i.e. linguistics. Should linguists study ancient languages and their changes over time or contemporary spoken language, as a living, changing entity? Is it possible to derive certain rules that would then apply to the study of all languages or should linguistic rules change as the language changes, for example, are the rules for studying the Romance languages different from those of studying Sino-Tibetian?
Saussure evolved certain ideas that would have far-reaching consequences. In this blog, I would like to discuss the concepts of signifiers and signifieds. A tree, ped (Hindi), jhaad (Gujarati), l'arbre (French) are all signifiers, that refer to the same signified: "the concept of a tree". Saussure pointed out that there is no essential relationship linking a signifier to a signified, i.e. there is nothing in the sounds ped, jhaad or tree that tie them to a tree. Saussure argued that this gave language both variability and invariability: words could change over time because there was no essential relationship, while at the same time being invariable as there is little reason to change them. I could pass an edict to the effect that what is now called a tree in English should be called remanu from tomorrow. If I become dictator of the world I could also enforce that edict by law. Over time, depending on various circumstances, it may become common to use remanu instead of tree, or it may not. In either case, neither tree nor remanu have any a priori relationship with the concept of treeness, and neither option is 'better' or 'more natural' than the other, but is made natural through custom and usage. Through generations, if it is accepted by a large majority of people that the following is an image of a remanu, this word would become naturalised, and invisible in that sense. In such a scenario, someone who referred to this as 'tree' would be seen as old-fashioned, and perhaps a bit eccentric.
All of this sounds interesting, but a bit theoretical and esoteric. After all, not too many people want to go around the world changing the words for things like tree and house. The implications of Saussure's argument, however, opened up 'the whole wide world' and the ways in which we think about it. The signified(s) that we attach to signifiers come into being historically, and are not inherently attached to them. When a large number of people unquestioningly accept and attach a particular signified to a particular signifier, it becomes naturalised, part of our 'common sense'. It is this which makes most people think that almost everyone else means the same thing by things that they do, whereas even cursory conversations reveal that what we think of as 'decency', 'honesty', 'good acting', 'responsibility' and so forth need to be attached to precisely similar signifiers, and could differ in specific situations. Our popular opinions as a whole are similarly shaped as much by historical contingency as by anything else. It is common sense now to believe that people should be punished through imprisonment, just as at one historical point of time it was common sense that they should be hanged publicly and spectacularly. This argument, of course, is Foucault's opening gambit in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
I am not arguing for a non-politicized "you have your opinion, I have mine and we are all entitled to our opinion" position. That is a simplistic escape from reasoned debate. Concepts like truth and justice are constructed, and we give them meaning by attaching specific signifieds and not others to them. At the same time, this does not mean that every construction of truth is equal. All concepts are equal to the extent that all are constructed, but the contents of their constructions are open to debate, rejection and assimilation. For instance, development and progress are commonly understood as a visibly high standard of living, demonstrated in grand buildings, availability of a wide variety of consumer goods, and so on and so forth. By this logic, America is a developed country. If development were to be understood as the absence of poverty, or the availability of equal opportunities, America may not come across as a very developed country. A lot of political struggles are struggles around signifiers. A particular set of population has been variously referred to as 'Black', 'Coloured' and as 'African-American'. This fight is not a fight for political correctness but for dignity. The fight for a different signifier is the fight to bring into being a new relationship between oneself and the world.