Patrice Pavis: "The State of Current Theatre Research"


This misunderstanding is not a recent one, as semiology has always been accused of mechanically applying the linguistic model to fields other than literature, notably social and artistic practices. However, since Saussure and Barthes, it ought to be clear that even if these other practices are based on the signifier/signified opposition, they cannot be reduced to a grid where non-linguistic signifiers are automatically translated into linguistic signifiers. Nothing forces, nor allows for that matter, the spectator to translate the experience of contemplating a light, a system of gestures or music into words that can then be integrated into the global meaning of the stage. The objection made by the Québecois theorist, Rodrigue Villeneuve (1989: 25), seems to be inappropriate: "what seems to be difficult to accept," he writes, "is this general attitude, more or less clearly manifest, that confines everything that is not linguistic translation of the stage object to an indefinable zone." Semiology, even Saussurian semiology, is not obsessed with describing everything, which would, in any case, be impossible, still less with translating everything into words.
There are, in fact, several questions mixed into this critique of the sign. Certainly, the Saussurian model of the sign is binary (signifier/signified) and not ternary like that of Peirce (1978) (representation, object, interpretant). In this way, we can consider theatre performance as an ensemble of signifiers which only have meaning as a series of differences. As regards the possible signifiers which arise from this series of differences, we can link them with those signifieds in other semiological systems borrowed from the referent (or real world); thus this world can be included in our consciousness as a series of semiological systems already preformed and pre-constructed by culture and language. Thanks to Saussure, therefore, we can grasp meaning as the construction of a signification and not as the naive communication of a preexisting signification.
However, once we actually perceive the materiality of the Performance (the signifiers, in Saussurian terms), nothing prevents us from positioning ourselves in the pre-linguistic, "just before Language," of grasping "the body in the mind"1; this is, after all, what we actually do when we watch a dance, a gesture or any signifier not yet contaminated or transcribed by language. Another question is how to link these pre-linguistic impressions to the other elements of the performance, notably the linguistic and narrative elements. We will later examine (in chapter 1, Part 2) if it is possible to do this without a binary semiology, if the spectator's gaze or desire is not always directed, channelled, vectorised by signs.
There are many other misunderstandings about this initial semiology which need to be clarified. hose with which we have just dealt here are easily dissipated; however, this first phase of semiological research has many other limitations which we must try to overcome by imagining all possible solutions.

1.5. Limitations of Classical Semiology

Minimal units

Theatre performance cannot be segmented, like natural languages, into a limited series of units or phonemes, where rules of combination could demonstrate all the possibilities. It is impossible then to transpose the linguistic model of phonemes and morphemes onto the plane of what is now metaphorically known (since Artaud) as 'theatre language'. It is no use trying to isolate, in the continuum of the performance, minimal elements distinguished as the smallest units of time and space. Such careful examination is only interesting if it does not leave out important clues to help us understand the performance; it does not explain how the signs work and the minimal unit is not or is no longer the philosopher's stone which will segment the performance as if by magic.

1. To use the title of Mark Johnson's Book, The Body in the Mind (1987), University of Chicago Press. [Up]

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© 1997, AS/SA

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