Discontinuity in Language

by CT on June 10, 2014

Discontinuity  is manifest in language in the sense that there is a complete separation between the signifier and the signified, between the symbolic and that for which the symbol stands for. This is also called the “arbitrariness of the signifier” (see the work of Ferdinand de Saussure – http://www.revue-texto.net/Saussure/Saussure.html )

The term “arbitrariness” means here that the signifier or symbol is arbitrary in relation to the signified, that is, that the symbol does not have a direct dependency on the meaning. Different words can have the same meaning. The same word may point to different meanings.

This arbitrariness is what I call “discontinuity,” pointing to the absolute distance or gap between words and the things these refer to. This primary discontinuity leads to a secondary one, as words are not univocally anchored in the objects they represent, a constant flow of signifiers is produced, a flow of words replacing each other as symbols of the same objects. This was also explained by Saussure.

When speaking about discontinuity in language I tend to qualify it as “absolute” to emphasise the void or distance between symbols and meanings in the most complete way possible. This emphasis helps explain the illusions of language, those effects we are not aware of as we are immersed in language and necessarily think through it.

It is useful to have a strong concept of discontinuity in language. The primary “arbitrariness” of words enables language–against appearances— to erase or hide material gaps and discontinuities in our experience of the world. Paradoxically, discontinuity obscures discontinuity. For example, the signifier “white” covers and represents a very wide (possibly uncountable) number of different colours that can be classified as being white. Here the discontinuity between one and the other class of white is re-presented and symbolised with a single “name,” i.e. the name of the colour “white.”

In a complementary sense, the same mechanism allows human language to “create” or establish distinctions: for example, if on the one hand the name “white” designates a variety of material colours, on the other hand this name marks a differentiation against colours that do not resemble “white.”

Aggregation and differentiation, then, are two sides of the language function, and they are interdependent. Both arise from the fundamental arbitrariness of the signifier (symbol). In the first case the arbitrary symbol bridges the gaps in reality, in the second case the arbitrary symbol establishes gaps.

So language has both a synthetic function (erasing gaps) and an analytic function (marking distinctions). Language incarnates, so to say, the duality of intensive and extensive abstraction (a concept introduced earlier -  see: http://carlos-trigoso.com/2014/06/09/intensive-and-extensive-abstraction/ ).

An interesting difference with animal communication systems arises, in that human symbols are more indirect than animal symbols. In animal “language” symbol production (“semiosis”) points immediately to the signified (the meaning) while in human language the symbol itself (and symbol production per se) become charged with meaning. Human language, then, is at least one step removed from animal language in that it shows not one but two articulations.

Here is what I mean: schematically, animal language corresponds to a triad, where the speaker (the “individual”) points to the “object” indirectly through a symbol (the shared signifier or sound in the case of bird song). Instead, human language corresponds to a semiotic square, where the subject (“speaker) points to the object indirectly, first through a symbol (the “subject” of language) and then through an agent (the “verb” of language). In this sense, human linguistic experience fully realises the Person – Subject – Agent – Object modal square I describe in other entries in this blog.

Because of this double articulation, because language itself is referenced in language, the symbol remains charged with meaning and appears as autonomous and separate of reality, as if the meaning were somehow inherent in it and not arbitrary. Ultimately, human beings become enthralled by words and use them ritualistically, magically and without examination.

Many problems of human thinking and speaking  (insomuch as we think and speak with and through language) arise from the fact that the arbitrariness of the signifier leads to a “closure” of language, where meaning is crystallised in symbols, thereby creating the illusion that language has value and meaning in itself. This, in turn, is one of the conditions of error in reflection and planning: Error appears immediately when we use words a-critically and we are constrained by consensually determined “accepted” meanings, i.e. established or “received truths.”

Collective acceptance does have a role in the determination of truth, but this works only if the human collective is able to examine words and meanings consistently. This requires considering symbols as links in the chain of Person, Subject, Agent and Object, so that they appear again as part of a process and lose any ideological fixations.

If this is not the case –i.e. if the collective, organisation or human group is not able to revise attributed meanings—the group will plan (or play) with words, working its way through stale “knowledge.” Words and ideas will be distinguished for what they are not, and  ideas or plans will stay as vague references to human fears and desires.

To remedy this, it is necessary to look again at the basic functions of language, at its capacity to obliterate discontinuity as well as at its power to establish distinctions. Language is a mystery, but also a tool, and by the same power which allows it to hide reality, it may also reveal truth.

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