Saussure’s diagram for the word as sign = signifier ("a-r-b-r-e" or "a-r-b-o-r") + signified (the concept "tree")
My grandson David is proving to be a chip off the old Baka, which is what he calls me. Only two years old, and already the boy can read. Show him “C-r-e-i-g-h-t-o-n” and without hesitation he will say “Supercats!”
Now I know that when you see “C-r-e-i-g-h-t-o-n,” you probably think, hmm, isn’t that a top-ranking regional comprehensive university in Omaha, Nebraska? How does the boy get “Supercats” from that? If he said, “SuperSquirrels,” that would make some kind of sense, since the squirrels on campus are quite aggressive. I’ve seen students back down from a fat squirrel that’s planted itself mid-pedestrian mall, chattering threats and brandishing its tail like a battle standard at the sight of a bag of popcorn or a pita.
I first discovered that C-r-e-i-g-h-t-o-n meant “Supercats” while David and I were sorting the cards in my purse. David loves cards: money cards (both credit and debit), copy cards, AAA cards, library cards, “soupy” cards (from Panera’s), and more. I noticed that whenever he pulled out a Creighton University business card, he said “Supercats,” and put it in the appropriate pile. Not long after that, my (handsome and precocious) grandson was heard muttering “Supercats” from the backseat when the car was stopped at a traffic light. Up there next to the stoplight was a street sign that said “Ed Creighton Blvd.”
It didn’t take long to figure out why “Creighton” had come to signify “Supercats.” When I take my laptop over to David’s house to play, the first thing we do is Google our favorite funny cat videos on YouTube. (You know, there’s the cat on the treadmill, the cat in the bathtub, the cat jumping out at a bear or eating with a fork or riding around and around on a phonograph turntable or, David’s favorite, the cat disappearing into a quart-sized jar.) We click on the ball with the fox curled around it, and what pops up? My faculty homepage, C-r-e-i-g-h-t-o-n logo at the top. Mystery solved.
Some readers—while amused by David’s powers of observation and overall cuteness—might say that the child simply doesn’t know what “Creighton” really means, but, thanks to the work of French Deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, literary scholars know that what we are witnessing here is something called “the free play of signifiers.” Excusez moi? But of course you have heard of Jacques Derrida? And his Deconstructionist theory? Mais non?
Allow me to “explain.” First of all, “deconstruction” is not to be confused with “de-struction,” as in, my father claiming years ago that he could put a solid block of stainless steel in the middle of the room and we kids would find a way to “destroy” it. Nor should we confuse it with the kind of interior demolition we had to perform on our 1856-vintage house in Iowa City when we first bought it: tearing out lathe and plaster and pulling up floor boards with a giant crowbar.
Deconstruction a la Derrida is less physical but more profound. What it destroys is the connection between words and what they signify.
Not making sense yet? That’s kind of the point: Because there is no necessary connection between words and the world, none of us can be sure that we’re making the kind of sense we think we’re making.
Derrida doesn’t get all the credit, or blame, for plunging us into a world where meaning is flexible, to say the least. It all began with a Swiss linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure. He’s the one who changed words into signs. Apparently, until he came along in the late 1800s, everyone was pretty comfortable thinking of words as the names of things and actions and feelings, and so forth. People went around saying, “I’m going to sit under that big tree!” or, “Je vais m’asseoir sous le grand arbre-la!” without giving a thought to the arbitrariness of the words they had just uttered. No one worried about the fact that the letters and sounds that make up the word “tree”—like those that make up arbre in French or arbor in Latin—have no necessary connection to the leafless maple outside the living room window, nor to the tree around the corner that’s still decked out magnificently in red.
This fact did worry Saussure, or at least struck him as profoundly important. So important, that he came up with another word for “word.” Each “word,” he said, was a “sign” composed of two parts: the sounds or letters we can hear or see (which he called the “signifier”) and the concept which the sounds or letters call to mind (the “signified”). Saussure even came up with a diagram of the sign to express the relationship between the signifier and the signified in, for example, the sign we know as tree.
We could draw this same diagram with “Creighton” below the line and “Supercats” playing above it. Or we could put “Creighton” below the line and a view of the campus mall (complete with squirrels) above it. For that matter, we could put “Snort” (which is what David calls any large piece of construction equipment, having encountered a steam shovel named Snort in one of his favorite books) below the line and a power shovel or a crane above it. David loves nothing better than to stop and spell out the letters on a “R-O-A-D W-O-R-K A-H-E-A-D” sign and then spread his arms to embrace it all and announce with satisfaction: “Says ‘Snort’”!
So what’s the problem with this “free play of signifiers”? What’s so de-constructive about it?
Here’s the problem: If “words”—oops, sorry—if signifiers have no necessary connection to the real stuff they signify, it therefore follows, as “night” follows “day,” that we human beings are totally and constitutionally out of touch with reality.
I guess that comes as a surprise to some people. (They must be people who have never watched TV in a swing state during a presidential campaign.) Derrida’s ideas caused quite a stir. It bothered people to think that words, whether they are arranged to form poems or novels or the Congressional Record, have no connection to reality. Wouldn’t that mean that our lives really are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?
Truth is, I don’t usually worry about that sort of thing. However, some kind of cosmic error was made at the aforementioned top-ranking regional comprehensive university where I teach, an error that resulted in my being assigned a course in Literary Theory this fall. As a fiction writer, I have very little acquaintance with the likes of Saussure and Derrida. I might never have understood “the free play of signifiers” if it weren’t for David, Snorts, and Supercats.
The beauty of being two years old is that you’ve never heard of Saussure or Derrida or even Shakespeare, and your contact with reality has been direct and tactile for as long as you can remember. Words, like all the rest of the world, are your playground, your personal domain. David has been known to “grab” a B word like “Boy” or “Baby” right up off the page and place it in my hand, an invisible gift, as he declares, “B is for Baka!” I believe we all know what that signifies.
Mary Helen Stefaniak is author of the award-winning novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.