Wednesday, October 3, 2007

It always ends up drivel.

Skylar: So, maybe we could go out for coffee sometime?

Will: All right, yeah, or maybe we could just get together and eat a bunch of caramels.

Skylar: What do you mean?

Will: Well, when you think about it it's just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.

-Good Will Hunting

The quotation from Good Will Hunting above questions the conventions of modern dating. Why does “going out for coffee” signify a date? Why isn’t eating caramels or going fishing the code for “let’s go on a date?” In the same way that Will Hunting questions the code of dating Saussure questions the code of language and reality. Structuralists believe that our reality is constructed by language and that often times things don’t “exist” until we name them. "The bond between the signifier and the signified is radically arbitrary" is the Saussure quotation that I chose to explore for this blog. And example of what Saussure is saying is that the word Balloon (signifier) has no inherent connection to the piece of rubber filled with helium, air, or water (signified) that we accept as balloons.

A balloon could have had any of a billion different names and we still would accept it for whatever we called it. Saussure says that the combination of signifier and signified is what makes up a sign. Although there is no real bond between the signifier and the signified, the sign does have a very practical purpose. In the English language when I say the word balloon everyone that I am talking to understands exactly what I mean by balloon. We may have different forms of “balloon-ness” is our heads we all understand what I mean, and this is the importance of the sign. The thing we discussed in class that made this idea clear to me (and I may misquote so I am sorry if I do) is when “Dr. M” said that there was an indigenous group (I think it was Eskimos) that had over two hundred different words for snow. This blew my mind because on one hand, it is a little ridiculous to have 200 different words for snow. But on the other hand they must see snow completely differently than I do. I have 3 categories that snow falls into fluffy, slushy, and dirty. But these people see snow in 197 more ways than I do. That is amazing. It makes me wonder what would happen if we only had one word for food. Would all different types of food not seem that different to us? Would we just make lots of oatmeal because “food is food”?

This affects my view of literature because it makes me think of the word choice in any novel I read now. When somebody describes something as white, are they saying it because it is the opposite of black? Or perhaps because of its association with snow? Is whatever the author is describing pure? Or cold?


Harriet Vane said...

Excellent example (from Good Will Hunting)--I love it! I think that was a great way of explaining the complex concept contained in Saussure's statement: "The bond between the signifier and the signified is radically arbitrary."

littlemissmatched said...

I think you did a good job of explaining this quote, especially with your good will hunting quote at the beginning. It's a good example of how language constitutes reality, i.e. which combination of words signify a date.
Also, the example of the color white- being signified as the opposite of black or because of snow- shows how different words help to define each other, but don't have a solid meaning on their own.

barrowme said...

Great post Rich! You always seem to take concepts and make them your own. I really appreciate your creativity and use of accessible examples. I think you have a strong grasp on structuralism and demonstrate it in your writing. I too was blown away by the snow example. It really makes you think about how arbitrary language is. In the final paragraph of your blog you wondered if words could ever be pure. I don’t think words can be pure because not only do we create them, we create their opposites and meanings. I don’t think there is anything close to pure in structuralism. How do you like them apples?

Marcus said...

big fan of that film and big fan of the example - you applied it very well. it is also amazing to me that the whole 'snow' example and there being 200 words to differentiate it has had such an impact on (seemingly) everyone in this class. That idea alone really inspires the imagination and has you thinking, "oh shit, what have i been missing?"...Great post.

Marie said...

Dear Ben,
I was really impressed with your post. I went back into my theory blog and reread my initial reactions to this reading, and I wish I was able to explain it with the clarity that you did. It was a difficult reading, and I really liked that you noted that it changes the way you read novels, because I had the exact same thought.
Nice work, beej.

ccoleman said...

So I was wondering, do you want to get together sometime and eat a bunch of caramels?... You can get back to me about it.
On another note that quote was a great way of explaining what Saussure meant that “the bond between the signifier and the signified is radically arbitrary.” Your ideas were extremely helpful in understanding the meaning of structuralism.