Cogito ergo sum.
With that statement, Descartes inadvertently unseated God as the center of human life. Man became the epitome of existence. The Age of Reason during the 17th century emphasized the mind. It is only one’s mind that can be trusted. One cannot trust what others may say. One cannot trust what one may read. One cannot trust what one may sense even. One can only trust what one may think, that absolute certainty can only be had with reason and thought.
This epistemological shift from God to Man brought an end to the Age of Darkness and ushered in the Age of Enlightenment. That was the measure of critical thought until the advent of structuralism in the last century.
Structuralism posited that the mind is a function of language. The Cartesian idea that people produced meaning is replaced by Structuralism’s idea that people are produced through language and systems. It is language that shapes and determines thought. There is no autonomous consciousness but a system of linguistic cause; that is, there is no “I” without “you.” The rise of language is due to a relationship of reciprocating consciousness. Ultimately, humans and human reason is the effect of language. We are constructed by and are a product of it.
Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who died in 1913, in his book “Course in General Linguistics,” laid the groundwork for the development of semiology. There are three aspects of language according to Saussure. They are sign (e.g. tree), signified (concept), and signifier (sound-image). The connection between the signified and the signifier is arbitrary, which accounts for the different language systems that exist. Saussure states that “language is a convention” and that “the nature of the sign that is agreed upon does not matter.” Further, he divides language into two parts: Parole and Langue. Parole is the everyday usage of language. The individual “uses the language code for expressing his own thoughts.” But individuals do not know or “are largely unconscious of the laws of language.” It is not “complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity.” The rules that govern language lay within the collective mind of the community. They are assimilated gradually. This is what Saussure terms as langue.
The basic unit of meaning is a sign. The relationship between signs is of a binary, oppositional difference – i.e. life/death, good/evil, bitter/sweet. The meaning is also affected by time; diachrony or synchrony. The diachronic effect is historical or a span of time. Whereas the synchronic effect is a moment in time in relation to something else. Further, signs are organized syntagmatically and paradigmatically. Syntagm is a combination of signs in a meaningful order. Paradigm is a list of words that can replace one another without affecting the grammar of a sentence.
Charles Sanders Peirce (d. 1914), an American linguist, developed his own theories of semiology. In contrast to Saussure, Peirce uses sign as the signifier; interpreter in place of the signified; and object as the referent. The signified, unlike Saussure’s, can have successive signifieds or a chain.
Peirce proposed three classifications: Symbolic, Iconic and Indexical. The symbolic is a conventional relationship between the signifier and the signified – e.g. numbers, flags. The iconic is when the signifier resembles the signified – e.g. a portrait. In the indexical, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is to be inferred – e.g. medical symptoms, abstract art, a pointing index finger.
Emile Benveniste, a French linguist and semiotician, in his book “Problems in General Linguistics,” states, “it is in and through language that man constitutes himself as subject, because language alone establishes the concept of ‘ego’ in reality, in its reality which is that of being.” It is through discourse that when a speaker says “I,” the other becomes “you.” And each may “appropriate to himself an entire language” just by designating himself as “I.”
Emile Durkheim (d. 1917) was a French sociologist. He developed a methodology based on what he called “social facts.” He studied and commented on the effects of capitalism and industrialism on society. The result of which were incorporated into the framework of social functionalism.
Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist. He used structural analysis developed by Saussure in social anthropology. He believed that the “primitive mind” had the same structures as the civilized mind. And that the basis of human society was the same everywhere, though not in form. The objectifications of “primitive people” and the conclusions thereof were based on colonialism. A paternalistic approach in documentaries, for example, wherein a voice-over was used, narrated the daily lives of these peoples.
Through structural analysis, Levi-Strauss re-examined these well-established, ethnocentric proclivities. For him, the individual is a product of society. And societies are a function of family, religion, politics etc. The function of this division is necessary to organize a society.
Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was a French linguist, critic and semiotician. Semiotics is a study of signs in societies. In his “Mythologies,” Barthes put forth his criticism of modern myths. Myths have signifiers that are non-verbal. They are customs of a society and have different paradigms. Mythologies are systems of meanings which provide cohesion to society. They sustain society.
These myths are understood by members of the society to which these myths belong. Yet, they are unspoken of or rarely mentioned. Anyone who misunderstands or questions them, are in peril of being ostracized.
In “Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes politicizes his analysis. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word. Connotation is a secondary meaning derived from daily usage or usage in a social context. Advertising conflates the two terms. It uses connotation as denotation by adding to a product to sell a product – i.e. sexuality, wealth, freedom. In turn, capitalism, through advertising, uses myths to coalesce power. They use signs that are ideological – e.g. “America is the land of freedom.”
The truth and the false are mixed together. Denotation also becomes ideological. Which begs the question, “What is the truth?” If denotation is ideological and connotation becomes denotation, then all that is left is coded meaning.
Structuralism de-centered Man as the subject. It is language at the center. It is the use of language which is at the seat of power. That is to say, it can be politicized; to serve an ideology. It can be used to oppress. And with the confluence of denotation with connotation, there is no fixed truth. Every meaning suppresses another meaning.