March 25, 2005

A euphoric dream of being scientific

Kerim Friedman thinks that when I called French post-structuralism "cargo cult linguistics", it was a cheap shot. Actually, being nice about it, he says that I "overstate [my] case", even if the analogy is "cute and apt ... in respect to the crisis engendered by the failure of 60s radicalism". In order to "put linguistics in its rightful place -- genealogically speaking", Kerim offers a helpful quote from Ferdinand de Saussure about the possibility of semiology, defined as "a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life".

Kerim concludes that

Linguistics, for Saussure, was a sub-field of semiotics, and those thinkers who drew from this tradition steadfastly refused to reduce language to a purely psychological phenomenon. Derrida and Bourdieu, for instance, were clearly interested in speech act theory and discourse analysis, even if they didn’t engage in the practices associated with contemporary phonology, morphology, or syntax.

I'll observe in passing that many psychologists would object to the implication that the study of social life is in principle beyond the bounds of their discipline. And while Derrida may have been interested in speech act theory and discourse analysis, I can't imagine that J.L. Austin, H.P. Grice or Barbara Grosz would have gotten much out of an afternoon at the café with Jacques. This is not because Derrida had nothing to say. But there seem to be two very different kinds of intellectual activity here. Those three anglophone thinkers each tried to provide a theory, right or wrong, to engage and elucidate some kinds of facts about human communication. No matter how hard I try to read him sympathetically, I can't convince myself that Derrida is in that game at all. In that connection, it's particularly ironic that American humanists and social scientists have taken to using the term "theory" to describe whatever it is that Derrida and others like him do.

Anyhow, when I first read Kerim's post, I thought he was right. It had all started because I was annoyed by Eric Gibson's suggestion that pomo posturing was "derived from linguistics". The implications of the word "derived" seemed inappropriate to me, and in trying to clarify the relationship I settled on the "cargo cult" idea, which of course I borrowed from Feynman's famous essay on Cargo Cult Science. Now, linguistics has a few conceptual skeletons in its own closet, and so I worried that this might be hypocritical, a rhetorical cheap shot. But I decided to go ahead with it -- if you can't indulge in a little rhetorical flourish once in a while, what's a blog for?

Then Kerim took me to task, in such a nice way, for the "tone" of that entry, and I felt bad about it all over again. However, after thinking about it some more, I've decided that the "cargo cult" phrase finds direct support in the testimony of one of the key historical figures in the intellectual tradition under discussion.

Consider this passage from Philippe Dulac's essay on Roland Barthes, talking about Barthes' role as a founding father of French semiology:

Si donc la sémiologie relève de la linguistique, l’affaire devient relativement simple. Il suffit d’emprunter à la linguistique sa rigueur de méthode et ses concepts les plus opératoires (principalement ces couples fondamentaux que sont : langue/parole, signifiant/signifié, syntagme/paradigme, dénotation/connotation), de prendre pour modèle le système langagier avec ses principes spécifiques d’articulation et de combinaison, pour pouvoir dès lors constituer et analyser en système tout champ social important et traiter en sémiotiques particulières les discours littéraire, cinématographique, musical, voire alimentaire ou vestimentaire. [...] Il n’en est que plus surprenant de voir Barthes, bien loin de le développer et de le dépasser, l’abdiquer superbement, passer rapidement à tout autre chose (ce qui deviendra une coutume chez lui) et en finir avec ce qu’il appellera « un rêve euphorique de la scientificité » – laissant à d’autres les destinées de la sémiologie comme science.

Thus if semiology comes from linguistics, things become relatively simple. It's enough to borrow from linguistics its methodological rigour and its most operative concepts (mainly the fundamental pairs language/speech, signifier/signified, syntagmatic/paradigmatic, denotation/connotation), to take as a model the linguistic system with its specific principles of connection and combination, in order to constitute and systematically analyze every social area, and to treat as particular semiotic systems the discourses of literature, cinema, music, even food and clothing. [...] It's therefore all the more surprising to see Barthes, far from developing and going beyond [these ideas], proudly abdicating them, passing quickly to all sorts of other things (as will become his custom) and giving up entirely on what he called "a euphoric dream of being scientific" -- leaving to others the destinies of semiology as science.

Isn't Barthes' phrase "un rêve euphorique de la scientificité" equivalent to saying that the importation of semiotic terminology into French "theory" of the past half-century was exactly "cargo cult linguistics"?


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 25, 2005 09:18 AM