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A Gulf not a Channel

This is French, so pay attention and no sniggering down the back:

This is what we might call the referential illusion. The truth of this illusion is this: eliminated from the realist speech-act as a signified of denotation, the “real” returns to it as a signified of connotation; for just when these details are reputed to denote the real directly, all that they do ‑ without saying so ‑ is signify it; Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of “the real” (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.

Thus Roland Barthes in The Rustle of Language (1989). If you didn’t manage to get it all, I trust you at least heard the rustle. Semiology began in 1983, between the Belfast supergrass trials and The Police’s last LP. Rather late, thank God, for me, who had had enough trouble with the previous orthodoxy, the New Criticism. There’s no doubt you had to be reasonably intelligent to grasp even a quarter of it, and if you grasped much more than a quarter the chances are you were on your way to becoming a professor and would be handing it on down the generations. If you’d gone to the trouble of understanding Derrida you certainly weren’t going to waste it.

The sneering, empiricist Brits called it “the higher French nonsense” and I know it is unworthy of me but I can see their point. This shall we say difference (différence) did not start today nor yesterday. John Locke may have thought – though the phrase is not his – that metaphysics was just so much beating of the air. He certainly had difficulty with the thought of Nicolas Malebranche “[w]herein, I confess, there are many expressions, which carrying with them, to my mind, no clear idea, are likely to remove but little of my ignorance by their sounds”. And “Here again I must confess myself in the dark.” And again: “And methinks if a man would have studied obscurity, he could not have writ more unintelligibly than this.”

But that’s the Brits all over, making a joke out of a serious thing and a serious thing out of a joke.
29/11/2013