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    Review of:
    Roy Harris, Saussure and His Interpreters. New York: New York UP, 2001.

  1. The author of a 1983 English translation of Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale, as well as two previous books centering on Saussure's theories of language (Reading Saussure and Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein), Roy Harris brings a wealth of expertise to his new book on Saussure. More than this, as is amply borne out in the early chapters of Saussure and His Interpreters, Harris is deeply familiar with the various manuscript sources (i.e., students' notebooks) on which Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye relied in producing/editing what became the Course in General Linguistics, the first edition of which was published in 1916. [1] Added to these other qualifications is Harris's stature as an expert in the field of linguistic theory more generally. [2] From all of these achievements emerges the profile of a commentator uniquely positioned to interpret--to understand as well as adjudicate between--previous interpretations of Saussure.

  2. To be sure, Harris's background and research accomplishments--his knowledge of the origins, details, and larger framework of Saussurean language theory--are unimpeachable. [3] But while Harris's credentials are unimpeachable, there remains the question of whether those credentials have equipped him to take the true measure of Saussure's interpreters, i.e., those who claim (or for that matter disavow) a Saussurean basis for their work. This question, prompted by the tone as well as the technique of a book cast as an exposé of nearly a century's worth of "misreadings" of Saussure, is itself part of a broader issue exceeding the scope of the author's study. The broader issue concerns the exact nature of the relation between ideas developed by specialists in particular fields of study and the form assumed by those ideas as interpreted (and eo ipso adapted) by non-specialists working in other, more or less proximate fields. Also at issue are the nature and source of the standards that could (in principle) be used to adjudicate between better and worse interpretations of source ideas imported into diverse target disciplines--that is, into domains of study in which, internally speaking, distinct methods and objects of interpretation already hold sway. Indeed, even within the same discipline in which the ideas in question had their source, interpretations can vary widely--as suggested by Harris's chapters on linguists who in his view misunderstand or misappropriate Saussure (the list includes such major figures as Leonard Bloomfield, Louis Hjelmslev, Roman Jakobson, and Noam Chomsky). Although these deep issues sometimes surface during Harris's exposition, they do not receive the more sustained treatment they deserve. The result is a study marked, on the one hand, by its technical brilliance in outlining the Rezeptiongeschichte of Saussurean theory, but on the other hand by its avoidance of other, foundational questions pertaining to the possibilities and limits of interpretation itself. The salience of those questions derives, in part, from the transdisciplinary legacy of Saussure's own work.

  3. It is worth underscoring at the outset that Harris's account of Saussure and his interpreters is not merely a descriptive one. Granted, the author carefully traces the transformation and recontextualization of Saussurean ideas as they were propagated within the field of linguistics and later (or in some cases simultaneously) migrated from linguistics into neighboring areas of inquiry. [4] But Harris does not rest content with pointing out where an intra- or interdisciplinary adaptation differs from what (in his interpretation) is being adapted. Persistently, in every chapter of the book, and sometimes in quite vituperative terms, Harris construes this adaptive process as one involving distortion, i.e., a failure to get Saussure right. [5] I discuss Harris's specific claims in more detail below. For the moment, I wish to stress how this prescriptive, evaluative dimension of the author's approach is at odds with what he emphasizes at the beginning of his study--namely, the status of Saussure's text as itself a construct, a constellation of interpretive decisions made by those who sought to record and, in the case of his editors, promulgate Saussure's ideas.

  4. Indeed, Harris's meticulous analysis of the textual history of the Course invites one further turn of the Saussurean screw: if the very text on which all subsequent interpretations have been built is itself the product of students' and editors' interpretations, then who, precisely, is in a position to interpret Saussure's interpreters? Or rather, where is the ground on which one might stand to distinguish between the wheat of productive adaptations and the chaff of non- or counter-productive misappropriations, whether these borrowings are made within or across the boundaries of linguistic study? [6] In this connection, there is a sense in which Harris seeks to have his cake and eat it, too. The author advances the claim that, in the case of Saussure's text, interpretation goes all the way down, meaning that no feature of the Course is not already an interpretation by Saussure's contemporaries. But he also advances the claim that at some point (is it to be stipulated by all concerned parties?) interpretation stops and the ground or bedrock of textual evidence begins (2), such that those of Saussure's successors who engaged in particular strategies or styles of interpretation can be deemed guilty of error, of violating the spirit (if not the letter) of Saussure's work.

  5. As demonstrated by the early chapters of Saussure and His Interpreters, no writer is more aware than Harris that the book often viewed as the foundational document of (European) structuralism was in fact a composite creation, a portmanteau assemblage of more-or-less-worked-out hypotheses by Saussure himself, re-calibrated for the purposes of undergraduate instruction; notes taken by students not always consistent in their reports of what Saussure actually said in class; conjectures, surmises, extrapolations, and outright interpolations by the editors of the Course; and, later, interpretations of Saussure by linguists, anthropologists, semioticians, and others--interpretations because of which later generations of readers came to "find" things in Saussure's text that would not necessarily have been discoverable when the book first appeared. As Harris puts it in chapter 1, "Interpreting the Interpreters," "the majority of Saussure's most original contributions to linguistic thought have passed through one or more filters of interpretation" (2). As Harris's discussion proceeds, the emphasis on Saussure's ideas as inevitably interpretively filtered gives way to a series of attempts to dissociate Saussure's theories from a group of filters that seem to be qualitatively different from those falling into the initial group (i.e., students and editors). Harris distinguishes between the two sets of filters by dividing them into contemporaries and successors (3-4), although by Harris's own account neither group can be exempted from the process by which Saussure's ideas were actively constructed rather than passively and neutrally conveyed. Given that (as Harris discusses in chapter 3) Saussure's editors took the liberty of writing portions of the Course without any supporting documents, it is not altogether clear why the parameters of distance in time and intellectual inheritance (4) are sufficient to capture what distinguishes a successor's from a contemporary's interpretations. An editorial interpolation is arguably just as radically interpretive as any post-Saussurean commentator's extrapolation. In any case, in interpreting Saussure, neither contemporaries nor successors have stood on firm ground, whatever their degree of separation in time and tradition from the flesh-and-blood "author" of the Course.[7]

  6. Indeed, Harris's concern early on is with the difficulty or rather impossibility of getting back to the solid ground of Saussure's "true"--unfiltered--ideas. In chapter 2, "The Students' Saussure," the author remarks that two separate questions must be addressed in considering the students' notebooks as evidence concerning Saussure's ideas: on the one hand, whether the students understood their teacher's points; on the other hand, whether what Saussure said in class always reliably indicated his considered position on a given topic (17). With respect to the latter question, Saussure may have sometimes been unclear, and he also may have sometimes oversimplified his views for pedagogical reasons. The challenge of reconstructing the Saussurean framework on the basis of student notes is therefore considerable. Moreover, Saussure's decisions about what to include in his lectures were in some cases dictated by the established curriculum of his time, rather than by priorities specific to his approach to language and linguistic study. Assuming as much, Saussure's editors expunged from the published version of the Course the survey of Indo-European languages that he presented in his actual lectures (18-23), to mention just one example.

  7. As for the editors themselves, Harris discusses their role in chapter 3. The author notes that, in statements about the Course written after the publication of the first edition, Bally and Sechehaye came to quote their own words as if they were Saussure's (32). The publication of Robert Godel's Les Sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure in 1957, however, revealed that many of the editors' formulations lacked any manuscript authority whatsoever. They were imputations by Bally and Sechehaye rather than, in any nontrivial sense, reconstructions of the student notebooks. Also, in selecting which Saussurean materials to include in the Course and in making decisions about which ideas should be given pride of place in the exposition, the editors were inevitably biased by their own linguistic training and theories. The editors' biases came into play in their choices about how to present such key distinctions as those between signification and value, synchrony and diachrony, and "la langue" and "la parole."

  8. In chapters 4-10, Harris's focus shifts from contemporaries to successors, with chapter 11 attempting to take stock of "History's Saussure." As the first group of interpretive filters, Saussure's contemporaries already impose a layer of mediation between the linguist's theories and modern-day readers' efforts to know what those theories were. But the second group of filters imposes what often comes across as an even thicker--and somehow more reprehensible--layer of intervening (mis)interpretations on top of the layer already there because of the contemporaries' (mis)interpretations. Thus, the chapters in question portray a process by which a series of filters get stacked one by one on top of Saussure's already-filtered ideas, according to the following recursive procedure:

    Filter 1 (Saussure's ideas filtered through students and editors)
    Filter 2 (Filter 1(Saussure's ideas filtered through students and editors))
    Filter 3 (Filter 2(Filter1(Saussure's ideas filtered through students and editors)))
    As each successive filter gets pushed onto the stack, Saussure's ideas (at least as they were interpreted by his contemporaries rather than his successors) recede farther in historical memory. Even worse, the filters continually being loaded on the stack are the handiwork of commentators guilty of carelessness (Chomsky), incomprehension (Bloomfield, Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss), confusion (Roland Barthes), or even meretricious slander (Jacques Derrida), as the case may be.

  9. Again, though, this compilation of misreadings seems strangely at odds with Harris's earlier emphasis on the instability of the Course as itself an assemblage (one might even say stack) of more or less plausible interpretations. Does Harris mean to imply that, in shifting from contemporaries to successors, the interpretations of the former become "evidence" on which the latter must base their own, later interpretations? If so, by what mechanism (and at what point on the continuum linking contemporaries and successors) does an interpretation or set of interpretations achieve evidential status? Though centrally important to Harris's study, these questions about validity in interpretation are never explicitly posed (let alone addressed) by the author.

  10. To take the linguists first, Harris identifies a host of misinterpretations of Saussure on the part of scholars who, as specialists in Saussure's field of study, apparently should have known better. None of the linguists included in the author's scathing series of exposés emerges in very good shape. In "Bloomfield's Saussure," Harris suggests that the famous American linguist misunderstood the distinction between synchronic and diachronic linguistics, the Saussurean conception of the sign, and, more generally, the relationship between Saussure's theoretical position and his own. "Hjelmslev's Saussure" characterizes the Danish linguist's theory of glossematics as one that claims to be the logical distillation of Saussurean structuralism but ends up looking more like a "reductio ad absurdum" of Saussure's ideas: "Glossematics shows us what happens in linguistics when the concept of la langue is idealized to the point where it is assumed to exist independently of any specific materialization whatever" (90), and thus stripped of the social aspects with which Saussure himself invested the concept (93). [8] In "Jakobson's Saussure," Harris notes that whereas Jakobson presented himself as a Saussurean, the Russian linguist rejected a number of Saussure's key tenets, including the crucial principles of linearity and arbitrariness (96-101). More than this, Harris rather uncharitably discerns a careerist motive for the fluctuations in Jakobson's estimates of Saussure's importance over the course of his (Jakobson's) career. Harris's argument is that while Jakobson was still in Europe, he felt obliged to pay tribute to Saussure; but when Jakobson emigrated to the U.S. and tried to establish himself as a linguist during a time when anti-mentalist, behaviorist doctrines were the rule, he shifted to an attack mode.

  11. Even harsher than his comments on Jakobson, however, are the remarks found in Harris's chapter on "Chomsky's Saussure." In the author's view, "far from seeing himself as a Saussurean, from the outset Chomsky was more concerned to see Saussure as a possible Chomskyan" (153). But though Chomsky tried to map the distinction between "la langue" and "la parole" into his own contrast between competence and performance, and also to conscript Saussure's mentalist approach into his campaign against then-dominant behaviorism,

    Saussure's apparent indifference to recursivity showed that being a "mentalist" did not automatically make one a generativist, while at the same time Saussure's view of parole raised the whole question of how much could safely be assigned to the rule-system alone and how much to the individual. Thus Saussure's patronage brought along with it certain problems for Chomsky. (155)
    In criticizing Chomsky's attempts to extricate himself from these problems, Harris seems to abandon constructive debate in favor of sniping: "Chomsky's much-lauded 'insight' concerning the non-finite nature of syntax turns out to coincide--unsurprisingly--with his poor eyesight in reading Saussure" (166). This barb reveals a degree of animus not wholly explained by even the worst interpretive slip-up vis-à-vis Saussure. Why is it that Bloomfield's incomprehension of Saussurean ideas merits a far less severe reprimand than what appears to be a careless misappropriation of Saussure on Chomsky's part? Again, the criterion for determining degrees of fit between interpretations and Saussure's theories--the ground from which better and worse interpretations might be held side-by-side and adjudicated--is never explicitly identified in Harris's study. Hence it remains unclear why Chomsky should be subjected to much rougher treatment than Bloomfield, since both theorists are (according to the author) guilty of misjudging the relation between Saussure's ideas and their own. [9]

  12. The chapters devoted to nonspecialist interpreters of the Course--i.e., scholars working outside the field of linguistics--raise other questions pertaining to Saussure and the grounds of interpretation. At issue is whether a commentator based in the host discipline from which a descriptive nomenclature, set of concepts, or method of analysis originates has the license or even the intellectual obligation to point out where others not based in that discipline have gone wrong in adapting the nomenclature, concepts, or methods under dispute. At issue, too, is just what "going wrong" might mean in the context of such inter-disciplinary adaptations. I submit that such considerations, barely or not at all broached in Harris's account, in fact need to be at the center of any account of Saussure and his interpreters.

  13. Chapter 7 is devoted to "Lévi-Strauss's Saussure"; chapter 8 and chapter 10 concern "Barthes's Saussure" and "Derrida's Saussure," respectively. Already in 1945 Lévi-Strauss had begun to characterize linguistics as the "pilot-science" on which the fledgling science of anthropology should model itself, but it was not until 1949, in Lévi-Strauss's article on "Histoire et ethnologie," that Saussure's Course was celebrated as marking the advent of structural linguistics (112). As Harris points out, however, although both Lévi-Strauss and Lacan regarded the development of the concept of the phoneme as the crucial breakthrough made by modern linguistics, Saussure cannot be given credit for this idea (117). Lévi-Strauss for one placed great emphasis on the phoneme as a kind of paradigm concept, famously adapting it to create the notion of the "mytheme" (or smallest meaningful unit of the discourse of a myth) (Lévi-Strauss, "Structural"). The problems with this particular recontextualization have been well documented (see Pavel); Harris subsumes those problems under a more general "anthropological misappropriation of the vocabulary of structuralism" (126). Lévi-Strauss's misappropriation encompasses not only the idea of phonemes but also Saussure's opposition between synchronic and diachronic and the very notion of system or structure. Thus, "although [Lévi-Strauss] constantly appeals to the Saussurean opposition between synchronic and diachronic, he is manifestly reluctant to accept Saussure's version of that crucial distinction" (126). More broadly, whereas "both [Saussure and Lévi-Strauss] use terms such as langage, société, and communication, their basic assumptions with respect to language, society and communication differ widely. For Saussure, it seems fair to say, Lévi-Strauss would be a theorist who not only shirks the definition of crucial terms but constantly speaks and argues in metaphors in order to evade it" (130-31).

  14. In conformity with the stacking procedure described in paragraph 8 above, the sometimes "wooly thinking" of which Harris accuses Lévi-Strauss (131) becomes a deep, abiding, and unredeemable confusion by the time Barthes embarks on his own neo-Saussurean program for research. (Sure enough, although Lévi-Strauss's misinterpretations looked bad in chapter 7, in chapter 8 [140, 142] they come across as less pernicious than Barthes's.) Commenting on Barthes's proposal for a translinguistics, which actually assumed several forms over the years (135) and which Barthes seems to have based on Hjelmslev's suggestion that a "broad" conception of linguistics would accommodate all semiotic systems with a structure comparable to natural languages (134), Harris notes that for the French semiotician Saussurean linguistics stood "at the centre of a whole range of interdisciplinary enterprises in virtue of providing a basic theory of the sign and signification" (134). Yet because Barthes (b. 1915) probably did not read Saussure until 1956, his interpretation of the Saussurean framework "was an interpretation already shaped from the beginning by the glosses provided by such linguists as Jakobson, Benveniste and Martinet and, outside linguistics, by Lévi-Strauss and Lacan" (136). The implication here is that Barthes's subsequent willingness to "tinker" with the structuralist model (e.g., in the "simplified version" of the Saussurean framework offered in Éléments de sémiologie [1964]) resulted from Barthes's relatively high position on the stack of interpretive filters and his proportional distance from the historical Saussure. More than this, Harris suggests that Barthes adopted the label of "trans-linguistique" for self-serving reasons: to block criticism from bonafide linguists, and to present Barthes's approach as being in advance of contemporary linguistics (146). But from Harris's perspective, in a work such as Éléments Barthes only succeeds in "demonstrat[ing] his own failure to realize that the 'basic concepts' he ends up expounding are, at best, lowest common denominators drawn from quite diverse linguistic enterprises, and at worst incoherent muddles" (148).

  15. Harris's greatest scorn, however, is reserved for Derrida, whose position among the non-linguist interpreters is parallel with (or even worse than) that of Chomsky among the linguists. Focusing on De la grammatologie and beginning with Derrida's efforts to link Saussure's with Aristotle's conception of the sign, Harris affiliates Derrida's expositional technique with what as known is the "smear" in political journalism:

    Rather than actually demonstrate a connexion between person A and person B, the journalist implies connexion by means of lexical association. This technique is all the more effective when the lexical association can be based on terms that either A or B actually uses. This dispenses with any need to argue a case; or, if any case is argued, its conclusion is already tacitly anticipated in the terms used to present it. (173)

    But the dominant metaphor deployed by Harris in this chapter is that of Derrida as unscrupulous prosecutor and Saussure as hapless plaintiff, whose words and ideas are taken out of context and used against him, but for whom it is physically impossible to mount a proper defense.

  16. After critiquing Saussure indirectly on the basis of his philosophical and other "associates," Derrida, says Harris, finally puts "the accused the witness box," with "some twenty pages of Heidegger-and-Hegel" intervening between the insinuations concerning Saussure's Aristotelianism and Derrida's direct examination of the linguist himself (176). It is not just that Derrida gratuitously blames Saussure for the concentration on phonology found in the work of his successors (177). Further, when faced with statements from the Course suggesting that sound plays no intrinsic role in "la langue," "Derrida attempts to present them as symptomatic of a conceptual muddle" (178). What are we to make of the alleged contradictions, the supposed "web of incoherence," that Derrida purports to discover in Saussure's text?

    As regards the web, it unravels as soon as one begins to examine how Derrida has woven it. The [Course], as commentators have pointed out, proceeds--in the manner one might expect from an undergraduate course--from fairly broad general statements at the beginning to progressively more sophisticated formulations. In the course of this development, the terminology changes. Qualifications to earlier statements are added. By ignoring this well-crafted progression, Derrida finds it relatively easy to pick out and juxtapose observations that at first sight jar with one another. (179)
    Much of the remainder of this chapter (183-87) is devoted to an account of how Derrida quotes "selected snippets" of Saussure's book out of context, in order "to make Saussure appear to say in the witness box exactly what Derrida wanted him to say" (183). When, four years later, Derrida denied that he had ever accused Saussure's project of being logocentric or phonocentric, Harris calls this claim an "astonishing display of Humpty-Dumptyism" (187) and a confirmation that "Derrida's interpretation of Saussure is academically worthless" (188).

  17. Harris himself reveals a strong prosecutorial flair in his account of the nonspecialist adaptations of Saussure, impugning Lévi-Strauss's anthropological misappropriations, Barthes's incoherent muddles, and Derrida's academically worthless interpretations. These are strong words, and they invite questions about the interpretive criteria or canon on the basis of which Harris's charges might be justified. Harris waits until his concluding chapter on "History's Saussure" to sketch some of the elements of the canon that has, up to this point, implicitly guided his analysis of the specialist as well as nonspecialist interpretations. Remarking that he does not share Godel's confidence in being able to discern "la vraie pensée de Saussure" (the true thought of Saussure), the author does think it possible to recognize when a given interpretation of Saussure is "in various respects inaccurate or mistaken. If there is no 'right' way of reading Saussure there are nevertheless plenty of wrong ways" (189-90). Whereas the first part of this claim (there is no right way of reading Saussure) squares with some versions of relativism, the second part of the claim (there are in fact wrong ways of reading Saussure) is a corollary of Harris's avowedly anti-relativistic stance. For the author, "relativism has made such inroads into historical thinking that it is nowadays difficult to pass judgment on interpretations of Saussure (or any other important thinker) without immediately inviting a kind of criticism which relies on the assumption that all interpretations are equally valid (in their own terms, of course--an escape clause which reflects the academic paranoia that prompted it)" (190). By contrast, "Saussure himself... did not belong to a generation accustomed to taking refuge behind relativist whitewash"--i.e., "a generation who supposed that any old interpretation is as good as another" (190).

  18. Readers familiar with the work of Stanley Fish, for example, will recognize here a caricature of the relativist's actual position. Relativism is not, except in Harris's straw-person argument, tantamount to the view that any interpretation goes. Rather, it suggests that some interpretations should and do win out over others because of the way they "gear into" more or less widely agreed-upon standards of argumentation and proof procedures. What therefore need to be spelled out, in a relativistic as well as a non-relativistic model, are the criteria by which some interpretations can be evaluated as less correct or less useful than others. In the present case, one possible criterion, i.e., degree of faithfulness to Saussure's actual formulations in the Course, is ruled out by Harris's own account of how the text was saturated with extra- or at least para-Saussurean interpretations before it ever made it into print. But as I have already emphasized, the author advances (in explicit terms at least) no other criterion or set of criteria for successful or useful interpretation in this context. [10]

  19. At this juncture, I am brought back to another of the deep questions that needs to be explored in any study of Saussure's reception history, but that is not considered by Harris: do the criteria for successful or useful interpretation (whatever they might be) remain the same for both intra- and inter-disciplinary adaptations of Saussure's descriptive nomenclature, operative concepts, and methods of analysis? This question is a necessary one because Saussure's work actually has had two contexts of reception, two historical series of interpretive adaptations, which have sometimes converged, intersected, and even been braided into one another, but which should be kept distinct for analytical purposes in a study such as Harris's. That is to say, Harris's chronological arrangement of his chapters, by intermixing specialist and nonspecialist interpretations of Saussure, obscures another, arguably more important pattern subtending the reception of Saussurean theory over the past one hundred years. This pattern, rare in modern intellectual history, is the result of the peculiarly dual status of Saussure's discourse--a status that the account of "transdiscursive" authors developed by Michel Foucault in "What Is an Author?" can help illuminate.

  20. Recall that, for Foucault, the so-called "founders of discursivity" need to be distinguished from the founders of a particular area of scientific study (113-17). Like scientific founders, the initiators of a discourse are not just authors of their own works, but also produce the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts--texts that relate by way of differences as well as analogies to the founder's initiatory work. However, in the case of scientific founders, their founding act "is on an equal footing with its future transformations; this act becomes in some respects part of the set of modifications that it makes possible" (115). Thus, "the founding act of a science can always be reintroduced within the machinery of those transformations that derive from it" (115). Newton's theory of mechanics, for example, is in some sense continuous with any experiments I might perform (e.g., using wooden blocks and inclined planes) to test the explanatory limits of that theory. By "contrast," argues Foucault, "the initiation of a discursive practice is heterogeneous to its subsequent transformations" (115). To expand a type of discursivity is not to imbue it with greater formal generality or internal consistency, as is the case with refinement of scientific theories through experimentation, "but rather to open it up to a certain number of possible applications" (116). In this Foucauldian framework, clearly, a successful or useful interpretation will not be the same thing across the two domains at issue--i.e., types of discursivity and types of scientific practice.

  21. Saussure, I suggest, was a Janus-faced founder. He was the initiator of scientific (specifically, linguistic) discourse on the nature of signification and value within synchronic systems of signs, on the study of "la langue" versus "la parole," and on the concept of the linguistic sign itself, among other areas within the study of language. Successful linguistic interpretations of Saussure's ideas about these topics, it can be argued, will adhere to a particular set of interpretive protocols (which I have suggested remain underspecified in Harris's account). But Saussure was also the founder of a type of discursivity that came to be known as structuralism, whose practitioners across several disciplines made constant returns to Saussure in their attempts to test the limits of applicability of his theories. This sort of return, as Foucault notes, is part of the discursive field itself, and never stops modifying it: "The return is not a historical supplement which would be added to the discursivity, or merely an ornament; on the contrary, it constitutes an effective and necessary task of transforming the discursive practice itself" (116). Accordingly, interpretations of Saussure viewed as a founder of discursivity, and in particular as the initiator of structuralist discourse, can be deemed successful if they bring within the scope of structuralist theory phenomena that were heterogeneous to that discourse at the time of its founding. Thanks to the efforts of the nonspecialists "returning" to Saussure, myths, narratives more generally, fashion systems, and other phenomena were brought under the structuralist purview. Again, however, this is not tantamount to saying that any interpretation of Saussure as the founder of structuralist discourse will be as good as any other. The goodness-of-fit of such an interpretation will depend on a complex assortment of factors, including its internal coherence, its relation to previous attempts at broadening the applicability of the discourse, and its productivity in terms of generating still other interpretations.

  22. For his part, Harris develops what might be termed a contextualist explanation of "why, outside the domain of linguistics, Saussure's synchronic system was such an attractive idea" (194). Specifically, the author argues that "synchronic linguistics was eminently suited to be the 'new' linguistics for an era that wanted to forget the past" (195), especially the barbarity of the first world war and its negation of "virtually every Enlightenment idea and ideal of human conduct" (195). In other words, Saussure's synchronic approach could be construed as a "validation of modernity" (196), "for the values built into and maintained by the synchronic system are invariably and necessarily current values: they are not, and cannot be, the values of earlier systems" (195). Harris thus selects historical context as a ground for interpreting Saussure's nonspecialist interpreters, at least.

  23. Although this contextualist explanation perhaps identifies historical conditions that necessarily had to be in place for the Saussurean revolution to have taken hold, it does not suffice to account for how Saussure's ideas (and not those of others similarly positioned in history) have functioned as a magnet for (re)interpretations anchored in such a wide range of disciplinary fields. It is just possible that the rare, synergistic interplay of Saussure's "scientific" and "discursive" foundings were required to generate the extraordinary level of interpretive activity directly and indirectly associated with the Course. More than this, Saussure's dual status as a scientific and a transdiscursive author have arguably led to a rethinking of the very concept of interpretation--a rethinking that should be a major focus of any study of Saussure and his interpreters. If claims about the ideas of one and the same author must be judged in accordance with different interpretive protocols, depending on the context in which the claims were formulated, then validity in interpretation becomes a matter locally determined within particular domains. To put the same point another way, in the still-unfolding Saussurean revolution, the necessity to interpret becomes the constant, whereas the grounds for interpretation vary.

    Department of English
    North Carolina State University

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    1. Harris himself edited for publication the notebooks of one of the students who attended Saussure's Third Course (see de Saussure, Saussure's).

    2. In particular, Harris is a proponent of "integrational linguistics," an approach to language-in-context that seeks to overcome the limitations of both structuralist and generativist models. See Harris, Introduction, Harris and Wolf, and also Toolan.

    3. Jonathan Culler's Ferdinand de Saussure provides an excellent introductory overview of Saussure's main ideas, a familiarity with which Harris's study presupposes.

    4. Harris is careful to distinguish the term Saussurean idea from the term idea attributable to Saussure, construing the latter term as narrower in meaning than the former. I do not make this distinction here, particularly since, as Harris himself shows so effectively, it is not altogether clear which ideas are attributable to Saussure and which ideas are the product of interpretations by the students and editors. Harris's third chapter portrays this interpretive filtering of Saussurean doctrine as ineliminable, i.e., built into the very process by which readers try to make sense of Saussure's Course. Hence, by Harris's own account, the distinction in question, although valid in principle, is one that proves difficult to maintain in practice.

    5. Harris's remarks concerning a passage about Saussure in Fredric Jameson's The Prison-House of Language are not unrepresentative of the tone adopted by the author in some of his more biting critiques: "This gives the impression of having been written by someone who had many years ago attended an undergraduate course in linguistics, but sat in the back row and whiled away most of the time doing crossword puzzles instead of taking notes" (10-11).

    6. For accounts of the porousness (i.e., historical variability) of the boundaries of linguistic inquiry vis-à-vis other fields of study, see Herman, "Sciences" and Universal.

    7. As Harris points out (3), even apart from his ideas about language, the name Saussure denotes three different entities, sometimes conflated by scholars and critics: "the putative author of the [Course], even though [a]ttributing a certain view to the Saussure of the [Course] is in effect little more than saying that this view appears in, or can be inferred from, the text... as posthumously produced by the editors... (2) the lecturer who actually gave the courses of lectures at [the University of] Geneva on which the [Course] was based... (3) the putative theorist behind the... lectures [themselves]... trying out [his] ideas [in] a form that would be accessible and useful to his students" (3). As his study unfolds, however, many other Saussures come to populate Harris's universe of discourse: Oswald Ducrot's Saussure (2, 5-7), René Wellek's and Robert Penn Warren's Saussure (8-9), F. W. Bateson's Saussure (9-10), Antoine Meillet's Saussure (54-58), Bloomfield's Saussure, Barthes's Saussure, etc.

    8. Interestingly, as Harris points out (90), it was Hjelmslev who coined the term paradigmatic relations as a substitute for Saussure's "rapports associatifs." Part of his attempt at an overall formalization of Saussure's ideas, Hjelmslev's coinage was designed to replace a focus on mental associations with a focus on definable linguistic units and their relations. Later, in his famous essay on "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances," Jakobson used Hjelmslev's terminology, mistaking it for Saussure's (95).

    9. Internal evidence (cf. 106-7, 169-70) suggests that Harris objects to the early version of Chomsky's transformational generative paradigm mainly because of its postulate that language can be treated, for descriptive and explanatory purposes, as a univocal code shared by an idealized speaker and hearer, viewed in abstraction from their status as social beings deploying a socially constituted and enacted language system. If this conjecture is warranted, then in turn an implicit criterion or ground for judging interpretations of Saussure seems to emerge from Harris's account: given two or more candidate interpretations of Saussure's approach, then ceteris paribus the interpretation that most closely adheres to Saussure's insight that "la langue" is a social fact will be the best, most appropriate, or most correct of those interpretations. My point is that, because his book centers on the practice of intra- as well as inter-disciplinary interpretation, Harris is obliged to engage in argumentation along these lines--i.e., to make explicit the protocols for his own interpretive practice.

    10. The "justification of the method" offered in the final chapter does not in fact articulate Harris's criteria for successful interpretation of Saussure's ideas, but rather explains why the author draws together in one book a set of interpretations that he deems erroneous: "questionable or flawed interpretations, precisely because they are questionable or flawed, can be important as historical evidence. Particularly if, as in the cases that have been considered here, what emerges from studying and comparing them is that they were not the products of random error or personal idiosyncrasy, but are related in a coherent pattern" (190-91).

    Works Cited

    Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Revised edition. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.

    de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

    ---. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger. Translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: Duckworth, 1983.

    ---. Saussure's Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics (1910-1911), from the Notebooks of Emile Constantin / Troisième cours de linguistique générale (1910-1911) d'après les cahiers d'Émile Constantin. Ed. and trans. Eisuke Komatsu and Roy Harris. Oxford: Pergamon, 1993.

    Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980.

    Foucault, Michel. "What Is an Author?" The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Trans. Josué V. Harari. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 101-20.

    Godel, Robert. Les Sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure. Geneva and Paris: Droz, 1957.

    Harris, Roy. Introduction to Integrational Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon, 1998.

    ---. Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein: How to Play Games with Words. London: Routledge, 1990.

    ---. Reading Saussure. London: Duckworth, 1987.

    Harris, Roy, and George Wolf, eds. Integrational Linguistics: A First Reader. Oxford: Pergamon, 1998.

    Herman, David. "Sciences of the Text." Postmodern Culture 11.3 (May 2001) </text-only/issue.501/11.3herman.txt>.

    ---. Universal Grammar and Narrative Form. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

    Jakobson, Roman. "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances." Fundamentals of Language. Ed. Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle. The Hague: Mouton, 1956. 52-82.

    Jameson, Fredric. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

    Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "Histoire et ethnologie." Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 54 (1949): 363-91.

    ---. "The Structural Study of Myth." Critical Theory Since 1968. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: UP of Florida. 809-22.

    Pavel, Thomas G. The Feud of Language: The History of Structuralist Thought. Trans. Linda Jordan and Thomas G. Pavel. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

    Toolan, Michael. Total Speech: An Integrational Linguistics Approach to Language. Durham: Duke UP, 1996

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