Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


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A convergence of the last three types of research is still possible. That coming together supposes, on the one hand, a shared rejection of objectivism and immanentism, and correlatively moving from logico-grammatical questions on to rhetoric-hermeneutic questions. It does not matter whether research becomes more or less scientistic or scientific, according to preference: as it is taking textual complexity into account, it is already showing higher descriptive capacity, which in the mid-term will allow us to side with effectiveness.
There is still a state of the art to be made, a synthesis to be sought. At the same time, it is necessary to confront, evaluate, and combine the various analytical methods used to describe scientific and technical texts, and literary or mythical texts. A textual typology must be built in terms of concepts borrowed from semantics (since textual structures are primarily semantic). The linguistic description of scientific and technical genres has not yet been systematically attempted, at least not in France, unlike in Denmark or Germany (Fachtextlinguistik) for instance.1


2. Rebuilding Semiotics on Semantic Foundations

In all likelihood, contemporary semiotics derives its hermeneutic deficiencies from the language sciences, which privilege the sign (where reference is located) and propositions (where truth is located), and show reluctance in fact to treat texts. Benveniste was aware enough to phrase the problem: "semantics is 'meaning', insofar as it results from the way signs are linked together, how appropriate they are to such and such a situation and how compatible they are with one another. That's an absolutely unforeseeable vulgar fact. It's an opening to the world. Whereas semiotics is meaning closed back on itself and to some extent self-contained" (1974, p.21). The proposition is the boundary between the two disciplines, or at least it is the border between their respective objects. However pervasive it may be, this separation merely expresses a state of affairs: logico-grammatical problems aim for signs and their syntactic combination, which does not span beyond the proposition. On the other hand, rhetoric-hermeneutic problems aim for the text and all its levels, down to that of the word. The meaning of a word constantly depends on the text that includes it (this is truistic for the semantics of literary texts, for example).
The paradigm of sign, which falls to the lot of logic and the philosophy of language to study because of its content, and to the grammatical tradition, which culminates in contemporary morpho-syntactic research, because of its expression, is an attribute of semiotics, whereas semantics is justifiably associated with the paradigm of text.
While taking care not to generalize from the perspective of linguistics, it should be recognized that texts are among the most complex semiotic performances, and are exemplary for this reason. In addition, texts (oral and written ones) are plurisemiotic constructs that implement, besides natural languages, genres and styles, graphic and typographical systems (a punctuation mark does not function the way a morpheme does), prosodic, gestural (some sort of kinesics is always associated with oral performances). All these aspects are neglected by semiotics, and also by the linguistic schools that work on morphosyntax alone.
Finally and above all, the semantic relationships established or recognized between the various parts of a text, as an interpretive process, are of such complexity and variety that they cannot be boiled down to logical compositionality, but more often than not, on top of everything else, they involve interpretants lifted from other semiotic systems than natural languages.



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1. In France, researchers still have to do without a sufficiently diverse digitized corpus of reference. Admittedly, the Frantext base of the National Institute for the French Language fortunately collects literary texts as well as technical and scientific ones (in an insufficient but growing number). It is the only one, in the French field, to allow a uniform access to these texts, so they can be contrasted. But the Frantext corpus has not been systematically exploited in its generic variety (which does not account for the lexicographical studies in progress). Novels and short-story collections, for instance, are indexed together. A new classification is a good idea. In a thematic study of feelings, we have thus been able to verify that feelings in the novel are different from feelings in the essay. [RETURN]






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AS/SA Nº5, Article 4 : Page 18 / 27

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1996.06.22