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«Andrés Gregor Zelman The University of Amsterdam 2002 ii Mediated Communication and the Evolving Science System: Mapping the Network Architecture of ...»

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Ricoeur also critiques Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology. The reader will recall that Saussure’s analysis lacked a diachronic dimension whereas Lévi-Strauss’ addressed the notion of change over time. Ricoeur wants to appropriate this objectivity of structural anthropology for hermeneutic insight. Lévi-Strauss’ anthropology provides Ricoeur with a dimension of analysis that Saussure’s approach overlooks, namely diachrony. Lévi-Strauss’ analysis was diachronic in the sense that he perceived kinship and phonemic systems as the primary building blocks laying the foundation for the development of more complex systems. In this sense, these systems reveal an opening of the objective, synchronic language system isolated by Saussure into a paradigm of social analysis that must contend with the temporal dimension as a layering of systems. Thus, Lévi-Strauss is important for Ricoeur’s project because he outlined the relations between systems, not merely the interactions within a single system.

Ricoeur develops a new unit of analysis that contends with the fact that language is not only structural or systematic, it is used. Ricoeur substitutes Saussure’s parole with the word discourse. Parole, he argues, can only be understood as residual effect of langue. The word discourse is intended to emphasize the importance of the fact that language is used in everyday contexts – that it is not an effect of the language system outlined by Saussure. Ricoeur makes this distinction to illustrate two points. First, although language may contain structural imperatives, mediated communication is not an effect of these structures, it is an action. Second, one must distinguish between semiology and semantics: between the sign and the sentence. (1976:7) The difference is this: the sign, as the object of semiotics, is merely virtual. The sentence, on the other hand, is actual, as the very event of speaking. Herein lies the importance of Ricoeur’s distinction that discourse is an action that occurs as an event. For Ricoeur, “events vanish but systems remain” (ibid:9). Thus the act of discourse is not merely transitory and vanishing, “it may be identified and re-identified as the same so that we may say it again or in other words” (ibid:9). Discourse can thus be viewed as the act of repeatedly using the same systems in order to communicate, and it is in this sense 5 See: Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (1943).

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Ricoeur’s root concept in his reformation of parole as discourse is the word. The word is the atom of discourse. The word is important for Ricoeur because it occurs via discourse. It represents the use of language as a system, yet it simultaneously represents the conformity to an underlying structure. The sign system remains virtual, but the sentence occurs as an event. He explains: “[w]ords are signs in speech position. Words are the point of articulation between semiology and semantics, in every speech event. Thus the word is, as it were, a trader between the system and the act, between the structure and the event” (1974:92). With this reformulation of parole as discourse, Ricoeur has achieved a method of applying the structural model to language in a way that contends with the time dimension. The word for Ricoeur is at the “intersection of language and speech, of synchrony and diachrony, of system and process” (1974:95).

Ricoeur’s Interpretation Theory entails several other key features. His theory of discourse goes further into an analysis of polysemy: multiple meanings. He argues that the word is a “cumulative entity, capable of acquiring new dimensions of meaning without losing the old ones” (1974:93). This implies that words are not only bound within the meaning system of language itself, but that their usage over time projects the system onwards. Thus, Ricoeur’s concept of the word as the atom of discourse (parole), represents a unique application of the structural method. Ricoeur’s theory of discourse describes meaning as an event; every message is determined by the ‘structure of its meaning’, and every message is communicated through the system of language. The act of discourse is thus perceived as the intersection between system and structure. That is, speech necessarily uses the language system in order to say something about something, and this suggests an action or human agency. In sum, Ricoeur’s structural hermeneutics marks a shift from the two earlier structural approaches in the sense that it isolates the moment of social interaction as the locus of meaning. Ricoeur pinpoints the nexus: the moment we use words in discourse, but does little to explain the phenomenon of meaningful interaction itself.

Saussure provided an understanding of language as a system that exists regardless of context – knowledge and therefore meaning were perceived as both unchanging and transcendent. Lévi-Strauss’ similarly conceptualized systems of meaning devoid of situated context, yet he did argue that one could address the interaction between systems, thereby suggesting a different notion of meaning – one that breaks down the notion of a singular internally referential system, thereby introducing a different notion of meaning systems. In this light, the comparison between the print and electronically generated information that is compared in this thesis can be understood similarly as overlapping communication systems. However, unlike Lévi-Strauss’ approach, here we acknowledge no notion of transcendent meaning, but rather one that is contingent upon situated processes of knowledge production. Ricoeur provides yet another position whereby the notion of transcendent meaning is abandoned. For Ricoeur meaning is something that ‘happens’ via discourse (spoken or written), yet he falls short of making the poststructuralist argument for a meaning system entirely contingent upon the social. The notion that ‘meaning’ is something achieved via mediated communication is important here, as the empirical analyses to follow 24 assume this stance. That is, meaning is not assumed to exist anywhere, rather it is assumed to be an achievement obtained through the process of mediated communication itself. A central assumption in this analysis is that the traces left by communication can be examined to reveal the properties of particular processes of mediated knowledge production.


The distinction between Structuralism and Poststructuralism is similar to that between first-generation Medium Theory and second. In both cases the shift represents a rejection of the technologically deterministic bias in favour of an approach that addresses the centrality of human agency in processes of communication. By extension, both rely upon the deterministic framework of their predecessors.

Structuralism and first-generation Medium Theory privilege structure whereas Second-generation Medium Theory and Poststructuralism abandon the notion of a transcendental deep structure, and address the medium as used. Generally, the shift in both cases represents a rejection of a purely structured approach for a contextualized approach contingent upon social interaction.

Derrida This section will survey Poststructuralism as a tradition of thought with respect to its appropriation of the structural method, and the acknowledgment of the subjective use of language. Central here are the poststructural linguistics of Derrida. His work will be employed here for his notion of différance, as distinct from Saussure’s difference.

This reformation resembles Ricoeur’s structural hermeneutics in the sense that it contends with the temporal dimension, and that it reworks Saussure’s difference to address language as used. Derrida’s deconstructive project provides a useful segue in this brief overview of the structural tradition, as his work critiques linguistics, anthropology, and hermeneutics alike. His project will be used here to the extent that it deconstructs the foundations of the structural method.

The reader will recall that Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole divorced the system of language from the environment in which it is used. Language is perceived as a differential system of signs, in which each sign exists as both signifier and signified. Every sign signifies something: it refers to the thing that it represents, and it refers to a signified, to its differential value in the lexical system. It was argued that Saussure’s signified refers to a transcendental realm – Derrida also argues that Saussure refers to an ideal meaning – we can understand Saussure’s sign, signifier and signified as a meaning system which exists outside of situational context. Derrida reworks Saussure’s system of signification to address the signified as an infinite play of meaning which does not refer to a transcendental signified. The reformation is such that the sign is composed of a signifier and signified, but in this case the signified represents the differential play of meaning in the time dimension, not an ideal, transcendental realm.

The work of Ricoeur and Derrida is similar in the respect that both theorists adopt Saussure’s original method and integrate time into the equation. Ricoeur reworked parole to account for the fact that language is used; Derrida reworks langue to 25 reinstate time and social context as integral aspects of the meaningful process. In order to explain Derrida’s différance as an extension of the structural method, I will review the three key theorists upon whom Derrida relies for this reformation.

Saussure will again be critiqued for his negation of human agency, Rousseau isolates an important aspect of language; namely that the written word be perceived as a supplement of the real world, and Freud is reviewed for the concepts of libidinal deferral and the trace. These three theorists, as we shall see, provide Derrida with a conception of the language system that surpasses the original concept of difference.

Derrida clearly biases the medium of text. Structuralism biased text over speech in the sense that it physically contains the code of the language system, and thus provided a concrete object of study. But for Derrida, writing is particularly important for language analysis because it not only exists as a physically inscribed text but as a psychical medium as well. Derrida downplays speech; he views writing (as mental inscription) as older than the medium of speech itself. For Derrida all text is necessarily involved with larger inter-textual systems of meaning. Thus, all writing, whether physical or psychical, is interrelated. Meaningful relations are therefore intertextual, signs mean in juxtaposition to each other and not through reference to an ideal form. Derrida’s différance is self described as neither a word, nor a concept in the literal sense; différance refers to the overall system of intertextuality. (1982:3) Derrida reworks Saussure’s difference because it lacks an adequate account of how the subject’s identity relates to language. For Derrida, Saussure’s analysis suggests that: “language (which only consists of differences) is not a function of the speaking subject. This implies that the subject (in its identity with itself or eventually in its consciousness of its identity with itself, its self consciousness) is inscribed within language, is a ‘function’ of language, becomes a speaking subject only by making its speech conform to the system of the rules of language as a system of differences.”(ibid:15) Thus, for Derrida, Saussure’s formulation denies subjects of conscious agency; supposedly, they must conform to the rules of language in order to structure intelligible meaning.

Derrida turns to Rousseau for his concept of the supplement and to Freud for the concept of deferral; together these theorists provide him with the means with which to reformulate difference as différance. For Rousseau writing is a disease of speech, it destroys presence. The word or sign is perceived as a ‘supplement’ of the natural world. (1974:142) Derrida appropriates this concept and argues that as a supplement, the sign can be viewed as performing two functions. First, as a supplement, signs cumulate and accumulate presence; they represent something in their absence – the sign is a present absence. (ibid:144) But the supplement also supplements, ‘it adds only to replace’, it insinuates itself ‘in-the-place-of’ something else. The sign is also an absent-presence, it is a supplement of the thing itself. (ibid:145) The supplement is both the missing piece and the extra piece. This can be likened to the example of the space-time distanciation characteristic of text described above in the context of Medium Theory; the word (text) stands in place of something else, it represents stored information. From Freud’s concept of deferral we can understand the supplement as a deferral of presence. Importantly, Freud employs the concept in terms of the trace – the mind is perceived as a network of unconscious traces, of deferred libidinal urges.

This implies a continual deferral of the present.

26 For Derrida, Freudian theory suggests that traces represent a spacing and a temporization – a spacing in the sense that the sign system exists as a differential network of unconscious psychical traces, and a temporization in the sense that these traces represent a deferral of present instances. Freud’s concept of the trace as a deferral, combined with Rousseau’s concept of the supplement provides Derrida with the means to create a new approach to the study of the language system. The word différance for Derrida entails Saussure’s difference, Rousseau’s supplement and Freud’s deferral. Différance is simultaneously a differing and a deferring; together these concepts indicate a system of difference that exists not only synchronically, but diachronically as well. Thus, Différance represents the breakdown of Saussure’s distinction between the signifier and signified. For Derrida, différance erases this distinction so that the signified no longer refers to a transcendental meaning, it now refers to the system of unconscious differences as deferred signification. The borderline between the signifier and signified is erased.

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