Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


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Admittedly, semiotic currents issuing from linguistics rather than from logic or grammar stress that semiotics targets sign systems. This is true, in the European tradition, of Saussure and Hjelmslev, of the Tartu School also (Ivanov, Lotman, Lekomcev in particular). However, the sign systems are usually understood as syntaxes: for example, Hjelmslev's theory extends the procedures of morphosyntaxic analysis to the whole of sign systems. However, even for languages, this syntactic patterning is not adequate, or marginally so. In the analysis of texts, all kinds of units are mentioned which do not break down into signs, such as topics or narratives functions. Signs are the least complex units, which does not necessarily entail that they are fundamental ones, in the sense that all the other units may not be reduced to signs without remainder. Were we to succeed in this reduction attempt, we would still have to acknowledge that no one has yet been able to provide a finite list of all the signs of a natural language.
Lastly, a language does not consist of one and only one system of signs, insofar as any text testifies to the interaction of several kinds of systems, in particular the impact of standards. This is why no grammar is able to generate a text. And without taking standards into account, the grammars that can generate sentences are unable to discard unspeakable sentences __ and non-speakable ones because of the strictures of rationality.



II. Semiotics and the Symbolic Paradigm of Cognitivism

1. Signs in cognitive science


There are in fact two types of signs recognized by cognitivism: signals and symbols (in the logical definition of the term). The other types are studied only for their new translation into symbols, then, if necessary, into signals. Let us examine in this light the types of semantics and hermeneutics attached to the signal and the logical symbol.


1.1. Meaningless signals

Theories of the signal, flourishing under cybernetics, are related to the theory of information. It is advisable to distinguish the rampant use of the word signal, in expressions like signal-processing or speech signal, which then indicates physical flows likely to be interpreted as signifiers. This concept calls for a theory of interpretation, because nobody has yet offered a truly reliable method to distinguish the signal (meaningful part) from interference (the remainder in the physical flow). Let us add that the signal does not have syntax, because it is not discrete.
In another meaning of the word, signals are electromechanical bits. They are discrete, but do not have syntax. The concept of information expresses a statistical property of the signals, and has no relationship with the meaning that can be attributed to the message. The model of communication, which one finds in all linguistics and semiotics primers, is derived from telecommunication engineering. The transmitter and the receiver are, for example, a loudspeaker and a microphone. The message is not the text, but its expression, boiled down to its elements.1 Yet the Receiver fails to take the place of the interpreter, nor can decoding replace comprehension, because to hear is not to understand, except if we bypass interpretation. More generally, the extension of the communication diagram is proof of the hermeneutic shortcomings of the language and cognitive sciences.



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1. For instance, the Markhovian model was worked out to study the succession of vowels and consonants in Eugene Oneguin. [RETURN]






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1996.06.22