DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 13, 2021, from

2. The role of language

Already well under way in the nineteenth century, the critique of Enlightenment rationalism found its postmodern turning point in the spreading influence of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss teaching at Geneva whose lectures on linguistics (published in 1916 as Cours de Linguistique Générale) have become a keystone of postmodernism. Saussure’s deceptively simple idea was that the linguistic sign acts reflexively, not referentially. The word, he said, functions not by pointing at the world, but by specifying an entire system of meaning and value in which each word has its function. (Technically, Saussure’s word points to an idea, but that idea is itself linguistic; there is nothing prior to language.) To read or understand even the simplest linguistic sequence is to recognize difference; it is to perform an incalculably complex and continuous act of differentiation, which becomes more and more balanced and rich the more that linguistic sequence verges towards poetry or other complex usage.

In one way this is only common sense. Any speaker of more than one language knows the arbitrariness of the sign: what is ‘dog’ here, is ‘chien’ there. But the more languages one knows, the more obvious becomes the systemic value of any word, the more obvious the fact that it has no exact equivalent elsewhere, either in other languages or in the world. To take the simplest possible example, we understand the English word ‘dog’ not merely because conventionally we have associated it with a creature, but more complexly and largely because we differentiate it by composition and function from other words and functions (for example, from ‘dot’, ‘log’, ‘bog’, and from verbs, adverbs, conjunctions). What is being described in these rather dry terms is the language’s capacity for poetry: its capacity as a living language to provide its speakers with particular alphabets and lexicons of possibility, and to modify, even radically, the usages with which we constitute our worlds.

The postmodern moment, as Derrida says, is the moment ‘when language invaded the universal problematic’; this is the moment when it becomes clear that everything operates by such codes, that everything behaves like language. Body language, garment language, the silent expression of gesture, the layout of a city or a fashion magazine or a university: all these are complex, coded systems of meaning and value in which we function simultaneously in several, even many, at once. Even in humdrum activities we are expert well beyond our conscious measures. Language thus conceived is a model of organization that is both powerful and finite.

For describing systems of value that work like language, the terms episteme and discourse have emerged as useful. Episteme suggests the systemic nature of all knowledge (one can speak of the Western episteme); and discourse suggests the systemic nature of all practices (moral, social, domestic, political, reproductive, economic, intellectual). These two terms at least help the mind to find the fulcrum that allows thought to run in directions different from those inspired by terms like ‘reality’ or ‘nature’ (see §3).

Postmodernism differs from deconstruction, with which it is sometimes confused. Deconstruction is a methodology with agendas similar to some of postmodernism but with a much more limited capability. Deconstruction is a negative movement by which an interpreter of a code or sign-system (for example a novel or a psychoanalysis) looks for what is not present rather than what is present – looks for the points of crisis and breakdown in a system or a rationalization rather than its more obvious positivities. This methodology has the initial value of opening interpretation to complex reading, but it soon gets lost in circularity; the negative quality of its questioning often limits the creativity of the response. It is almost as though deconstruction is riveted on what it has not got, operating on a kind of nostalgia for the referential view of language that postmodernism revises (see Deconstruction).

Postmodernism does not weep for referentiality. If the sign does not refer simply, but instead specifies a system of meaning and value, then interest lies in discovering what systems actually are in play and in seeing what different systems are capable of, whether they be literary texts, political movements or personal lives. This valence of postmodernism can be found not so much in the theoretical texts which have had such extensive recent attention, but in the creative work of artists and scientists who have in many cases anticipated the philosophical critiques of rationalism, and have gone well beyond them to locate their practical implications. Artists and film-makers like Magritte and Buñuel, postmodern novelists like Robbe-Grillet and Nabokov, post-Einsteinian scientists interested in quanta and chaos, feminists interested in new acts of personal and political attention, and architects who play with traditional conventions have explored the practical and material implications of postmodernism far more fully than have many of the more theoretical writers.

Citing this article:
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. The role of language. Postmodernism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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