Where in Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena (1943) only complexity is added to the discipline of semiology, Barthes’s Elements of Semiology (1964) brings clarity, depth, and extension to it. The Elements is a valuable work of integration, bringing together the disparate thinkers of the discipline, and its adjacent fields (anthropology, ethnology, psychoanalysis, etc.), in a systematic synthesis. Tracing the key concepts of Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) through the work of his successors, Barthes is able to demonstrate where genuine advances have been made, identify legitimate problems in the field, and straighten out terminological incoherence between the works of significant thinkers. Barthes also brings his own characteristically incisive mind to the table, extending semiological principles to systems other than language—including fashion, food, and furniture—in the mode of his earlier Mythologies (1957). Insofar as semiology, as proposed by Saussure, is the study of the “life of signs within society” (Saussure 16), semiology should, therefore, be able to “take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits” (Barthes 9). Indeed, it is Barthes’s comfort with the culture in which he lives that enables him to effectively consider the “great signifying unities of discourse,” so extending Saussure’s principles to non-linguistic systems in a practicable and enlightening way (11). With the Elements, we see both the embeddedness of the semiological discipline in its particular historical and intellectual milieu, and the broad applicability of it to our own contemporary studies.
The first significant point to note is found on the third page of Barthes’s introduction: “we must now face the possibility of inverting Saussure’s declaration: linguistics is not a part of the general science of signs, even a privileged part, it is semiology which is a part of linguistics: to be precise, it is that part covering the great signifying unities of discourse” (11). It must be recognized that “it is far from certain that in the social life of today there are to be found any extensive systems of signs outside human language” (9). Even in relatively complex sign-systems we find ourselves “once more confronted with language ... every semiological system has its linguistic admixture” (10). For Barthes, “collections of objects ... enjoy the status of systems only in so far as they pass through the relay of language”; the “signifieds” of such systems cannot “exist independently of language: to perceive what a substance signifies is inevitably to fall back on the individuation of a language: there is no meaning which is not designated, and the world of signifieds is none other than that of language” (10). Far from a limitation of semiology, however, Barthes’s insight puts semiology on firmer footing. Rather than seek the origin of language in a pre-linguistic phenomenon, Barthes acknowledges what we might refer to as the primordially linguistic character of human being. Regardless of the neurological or biological genesis of ‘linguisticality’ in the human creature, which some would desire to locate, the phenomenon of language permeates human existence; only by reckoning with language can the more primordial and unifying phenomenon of discourse be disclosed. On the basis of this inversion, then, Barthes’s proceeds to discuss the “elements of semiology” through four distinct sections, which will be discussed in the following pages.
In Language and Speech, Barthes begins with a direct analysis of Saussure’s dichotomy of langue and parole, and the “dialectical process” there between (15). There is “no language without speech”—the “individual act of selection and actualization”—and “no speech outside language”—the “social institution” and “system of values” (14-15). It is thus in the “exchange” between language and speech that “the real linguistic praxis is situated” (a point which Barthes also finds in Merleau-Ponty) (15). Barthes then clarifies how Saussure’s dichotomy is “redistributed” in Hjelmslev. Langue becomes the “schema,” the “material form” (the signifiers) of language the “norm,” and parole the “usage” (17). As is his wont, Barthes is here conducting a synthesis of Hjelmslev, taking the terminology introduced late in the Prolegomena (Hjelmslev 106), and clarifying it in terms of Hjelmslev’s following works. In Hjelmslev’s “radical formalization of the concept of language,” and his introduction of “a more social concept” of speech, Barthes sees an “advantage” that will allow us to “remove one of the contradictions brought about by Saussure’s distinction between the language and speech,” (Barthes 18)—that “in language there are only differences without positive terms” (Saussure 120). If speech is “actualization,” how indeed can language consist only of differences?
Barthes’s first concern, however, is to demonstrate “how rich in extra- or meta-linguistic developments the notion language/speech is,” which he undertakes through brief analyses of the garment, food, car, and furniture systems (25-29). In each of these, and in the “complex systems” which employ language and other materials simultaneously, Barthes identifies what he refers to as “‘logo-techniques’”—“truly ‘arbitrary’” semiological systems (versus languages, which are unmotivated) that appear as microcosms of the linguistic function. Where in languages the origin of the “contract” cannot be located (14), specific logo-techniques can be traced to their specific beginnings, and their development subsequently analyzed across a definite span of time. Furthermore, logo-techniques draw the “matter” of signification into the light, illuminating the uniquely recursive structure, and therefore eminent position, of language as a signifying system. Thus, Saussure’s distinction between language and speech, which cannot account for the positive terms of meaning which we encounter in the everyday social usage of language, is resituated and preserved in its relevance, while Hjelmslev’s redistribution is clarified in its value. For Barthes, this “lead[s] us to recognize in (non-linguistic) semiological systems three (and not two) planes: that of the matter, that of the language[,] and that of the usage,” highlighting the function of language as a “relay” that does not require a substantial matter for its operation (34, 10). The matter of language is signification—that is, significance or meaning. The usage of a non-linguistic matter is therefore referred back to meaning through the relay of language, a movement which discloses the use of language as signifying meaning (or signifying signification), which otherwise remains hidden in everyday life.
Where Hjelmslev moves from semiology to glossematics (shifting his focus from the sign-function to the figuræ of the expression and content planes), Barthes, in Signifier and Signified, returns to the sign as the chief object of inquiry. In Hjelmslev’s fourfold distinction of expression and content, form and substance, it becomes too easy to substantialize language in precisely the fashion which Saussure repudiated. As Barthes makes clear, however, language is isologic, “wield[ing] its signifiers and signifieds so that it is impossible to dissociate and differentiate them” (43-44). The positive potentiality of Hjelmslev’s distinction between form and substance is, therefore, in “deal[ing] with a system in which the signifieds are substantified in a substance other than that of their own system,” or when “a system of objects includes a substance which is not immediately and functionally significant” (40-41). This “allows us to foresee the nature of the semiological sign in relation to the linguistic sign.” “Many semiological systems,” Barthes argues, “have a substance of expression whose essence is not to signify” but subsequently “become pervaded with meaning” (41). Barthes terms this “semantization”: “as soon as there is a society, every usage is converted into a sign of itself ... there is no reality except when it is intelligible” (41-42). With the linguistic sign, then, we see that the “signified” cannot be “juxtaposed with its signifier,” as with, for instance, a garment which is juxtaposed with the signifier “garment,” and thus understood in its use as something to be worn; rather, the linguistic signified is the “λεκτóν,” “the utterable,” “neither an act of consciousness, nor a real thing”—the linguistic signified “can be defined only within the signifying process, in a quasi-tautological way: it is this ‘something’ which is meant by the person who uses the sign” (43). Thus, we see again how semiological systems are referred back by the relay of language, the function or usage of which is meaning as such. The functional is always already understood in its referral to the structure of significance (an echo of Heidegger that will have to remain undiscussed at present). So, where Hjelmslev formalizes, Barthes reads, taking the various systems of objects which are of interest to him as “corpus[es] of practices and techniques,” that is, as texts consisting of social functions (46).
For the remainder of the section, Barthes will examine the signifier, the signification, value, and articulation (47, 48, 54, 56). He will then proceed to Syntagm and System, where he will discuss the two axes of language, clarifying the differences in terminology between Saussure, Hjelmslev, Jakobson, and Martinet (59). In the final section, Denotation and Connotation, he will schematize Hjelmslev’s complex sign-systems in a manner compatible with his schema from Mythologies, making clear the structural differences between “connotative semiotics” and “metalanguage[s],” and briefly remarking on the place of “rhetoric” and “ideology” in semiology (90, 93). He concludes the Elements with some comments on “relevance” and “corpus,” and the task of the semiologist (95-96). Given the scope of this paper, however, the remaining space will be used to concentrate on Barthes’s sense of technique.
We have seen how Barthes refers to artificial semiological systems, like fashion and the highway code, as “logo-techniques” (14). We have also seen how systems of objects, as “corpus[es] of practices and techniques,” can be ‘read,’ referred back through the relay of language to the meaning of their function (as function) (46). This process of referral, through which we discern the meaning of a useful thing (its usage), also points us to the “quasi-tautological” definition of the (linguistic) signified as that which, “within the signifying process,” “is this ‘something’ which is meant” by the signification (43). The usage or function of the sign is, therefore, meaning as such, the eminent tool which refers to the process of referral, which we could say is the very ‘substance’ of meaning. Through usages, then, through tools, utensils, or instruments, we encounter the eminent usage, whose substance is itself (and is therefore recursive in structure), which gives all other usages there meaning or significance, thereby integrating them into the “great signifying unit[y] of discourse” (11). Thus, Barthes shows us that, in the sign-function, “the relations of the technical and the significant are woven together” (42). Through the further analysis undertaken here, we have seen that the sign, as the relay of all logo-techniques, and the ‘technique’ of meaning itself, is the basis of the technical, that by which something is understood as useful, and interpreted in its function. This is perhaps the greatest innovation of Barthes’s text. Through his careful consideration of the discipline and tradition of semiology, and a synthesis of its great thinkers with his own distinct viewpoint, Barthes opens semiology up to the practice of a logo-technics, that is, to a logos of the technical, and a technics of the logos. Such a practice could provide us with a link between semiology, the phenomenological hermeneutics of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricouer, and the technologically-inclined philosophies of Simondon and Stiegler. Though less frequently read than others of his works, Barthes’s Elements is, therefore, of great importance.
Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. 1964. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, Hill & Wang, 1983.
Hjelmslev, Louis. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. 1943. Translated by Francis J. Whitfield, University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. 1916. Translated by Wade Baskin, edited by Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy, Columbia University Press, 2011.