Study Guide

Ferdinand de Saussure Influences

I could recount the history of linguistics for you—which I know you would appreciate and treasure—but I thought I'd mix things up a bit. Because I was the first twentieth-century linguist and semiologist, I thought I'd let you in on a little of my legacy. I'll spare you the in-group quibbling over the evolution of linguistics and let you in on how my powerful influence put scholars and theorists from outside the discipline under my spell. Sort of.

My impact on Structuralists and Post-Structuralists—not to mention anthropologists, psychoanalysts, literary critics, semioticians, and cultural theorists— warrants some close attention. Just to soften the blow, I'll let you know right now that as much some people love me, there are plenty of very important thinkers who thought I was sort of full of it. Some were nicer than others about that.

Roland Barthes

I don't want to come out and say that this guy's work had my fingerprints all over it, but this guy's work had my fingerprints all over it.

Let's take, for example, "Myth Today," an essay from Mythologies, one of this guy's most popular essay collections. Barthes went wide with a lot of my ideas about semiotics, studying everything from royal weddings to wrestlers and steak fries. Barthes read everything as a cultural sign that could tell us a lot about the political and social world of 1950s France.

Just as I saw words as signs representing abstract concepts, Barthes saw cultural myths as signs that conveyed a culture's abstract beliefs and opinions. Check out his discussion of celebrities: it still holds up today.

Jacques Lacan

Did you ever stop to think that your unconscious might be structured like a language? Of course not. That's what makes Jacques Lacan special—but he couldn't have done it without moi. This wacky psychoanalyst is now famous for coming up with the so-called mirror stage and for giving Freud a run for his money in the field of psychotherapy.

Lacan loved him some structural linguistics. He took what he needed from Freud's whole theory of the unconscious (those thoughts that even you can't necessarily access) and slapped my signifier/signified situation on it. Clever, eh? We understand ourselves through the symbolic order of our signifiers. Like the unconscious, the signified (the abstract concept) is always below the surface, just out of reach.

Noam Chomsky

By the time this guy got hold of my ideas, well... I just didn't seem quite as important anymore. Linguists like Noam were less taken by my work than literary theorists were (hey, English and film departments still love me, so I can't complain). Noam leaned on a lot of my ideas, but came up with plenty of his own.

Noam was into studying sentences. He wanted to know how people string words together to make meaning. He was way more into grammar than I was, so good for him, I guess. I just didn't like his remark that I was "unable to come to grips with the recursive processes underlying sentence formation" (source). Thanks a lot, Noam.

Roman Jakobson

Roman and his homeboys in the Prague Linguistic Circle really riffed on a lot of my structuralist ideas. We both reserved a special place in our hearts for the signifier, signified, and for things like metonymy. Jakobson was also sort of dissed by later linguists for concerning himself more with words than with sentences. People get so freaky over grammar. Relax!

Jacques Derrida

I'm such a sucker: I can't help it when cool French theorists use my ideas. Derrida and I didn't agree on everything—after all, this dude was a Deconstructionist. However, he adopted the language and ideas of signifier/signified (and, boy, did he use that one), and he and I also agreed that language was limitless.

To demonstrate that idea, I had readers imagine a giant piece of paper covered with infinite signifiers and signifieds. Derrida liked that one. If you really want to see how much he respected me, check out his book Of Grammatology, in which he says my work is of "continuing importance." Take that, Chomsky!

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