The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0984 Monday, 8 May 2000.
Date: Saturday, 6 May 2000 14:27:44 +0100 (GMT Daylight Time)
Subject: Re: The Topic
Comment: SHK 11.0711 Re: The Topic
Some time ago, Gabriel Egan replied to my question as to why he quoted
Saussure to prove the principle that language isn't an innocent window,
but is instead performative. His answer was that Saussure provides the
antecedents for the modern idea that language 'doesn't merely reflect or
denote the world but also constitutes it ... That modern idea (which has
been contested on SHAKSPER in the past-remember the 0-10 rule) makes
saying something a significant engagement with reality, not a
free-floating adjunct which others might or might not connect with
I still don't understand why Saussure should be awarded this
recognition. The notion that saying something is a significant
engagement with reality seems to me to be a classical topic (and I
imagine others could produce earlier and non-Western examples). If the
argument is that such discussions are all conducted at an unhelpfully
untheorized level, then the 16c would still have a strong claim: Richard
Waswo, in _Language and Meaning in the Renaissance_ (Princeton, 1987),
argues for a semantic shift in the 16c to a constitutive view of the
relationship between language and meaning.
The other problem with quoting Saussure here seems to me that few
linguists any longer talk about communication occurring in strictly code
terms (outside of English literature departments). So while a
constitutive notion of language is commonplace and has a long history,
Saussure does not provide particularly good grounds for arguing it. I'd
be grateful to know what kind of a presence Saussure still does have in
Department's of English Language.
Gabriel Egan goes on to point out that as, he believes, 'naming a thing
changes it', the absolute right to free speech cannot be maintained.
This seems a strong argument (though many who have lived through heavy
censorship-Dorfman, for instance-hold an opposed position, fearing the
institutions of censorship, and their tendencies to develop, more than
they fear the speech of others). I wonder, however, whether Gabriel
Egan's strong and easy speeches on various topics sit all that happily
with his theoretical beliefs about the performative nature of language.