Semiotics, semiology, hermeneutics, structuralist criticism - so many labels, but how many things? If there are distinctions here, they seem to be largely hereditary. The term 'semiotic' comes from C.S. Peirce, 'semiology' from Saussure. 'Structuralism' has meant one thing in anthropology, another in linguistics; its application to literary theory comes partly through the work of Propp and the Russian formalists. 'Hermeneutics' once indicated the nice interpretation of Biblical texts; now it denotes the nice interpretation of everything. In all these things, however, the niceties seem to be the same: technicality at the expense of theory, analysis at the expense of content, intensity at the expense of depth - in short, 'vain babblings and oppositions of science, falsely so called' (I Timothy vi, 20). And yet, wherever literature is taught, students have to perceive it through the veil of this new scholasticism, their observations muddled by technicalities borrowed from a thousand premature sciences, distracted by 'methods' which regard Mickey Mouse and the Mona Lisa, Superman and King Lear, advertising jingles and the works of Schoenberg, as equally legitimate objects of inquiry. Is this movement a reaction against critical moralism, expressed with a hesitancy so great that only massive recourse to technicality can prevent it from knowledge of its impotence? Or is it the first step towards some new critical method, a method sufficiently general as to assign an interpretation to everything that could be regarded as a 'sign'?
LRB 7 February 1980 | PDF Download