The Influence of Roman Jakobson


Eco, Umberto 1987. The Influence of Roman Jakobson on the Development of Semiotics. In: Krampen, Martin et al. (eds.), Classics of Semiotics. New York: Plenum Press, 109-127.

The project of a science studying all possible varieties of signs and the rules governing their production, exchange, and interpretation is a rather ancient one. Pre-Socratic poetry and philosophy are frequently concerned with the nature of natural signs and divine messages. The Hippocratic tradition deals with the interpretation of symptoms, while the Sophists were critically conscious of the power of language. Plato's Cratylus is a treatise on the origin of words, and the Sophist can be considered the first attempt to apply a binary method to semantic definitions. (Eco 1987: 109)
Memo: read Cratylus.
But it would be daring to assert that these problems have been compared on the one hand with those raised by structural linguistics and on the other with investigations into nonverbal languages (De Jorio, Kleinpaul, Mallery, and Efron, to cite only pioneers) as well as with the analysis of poetry, folklore, painting, movies, and theater made by the Russian Formalists and their congeners. (Eco 1987: 110)
For some reason I am only aware of Efron from this list. Andrea de. Jorio studied gestures in ancient art [lang: Italian]; Rudolf Kleinpaul supposedly (according to Sebeok) wrote the most comprehensive book on nonverbal communication [lang: German]; and Garrick Mallery wrote about the sign-languages of North American Indians [lang: English]. Actually, no, they are familiar, but either beyond the language barrier (de Jorio and Kleinpaul) or not yet relevant for me (Mallery).
Aiming at understanding the phenomenon of language in all its manifestations, Jakobson demonstrates that it is impossible to isolate it from the rest of human behavior, the whole of this behavior being always SIGNIFICANT. (Eco 1987: 112)
It may very well be that when Lotman says very generally that all human behaviour is meaningful, what he really meant was that all human language behaviour is meaningful (or a "semiotic fact" as Jakobson put it).
According to the famous text written in 1928 by Jakobson and Tynyanov ("Problemy izučenija literatury i jazyka", it is impossible to understand the literary series without comparing it to the immanent laws of the other series, just as it is impossible to understand the laws of verbal language without considering their interaction with the laws of the other semiotic systems. (Eco 1987: 112)
If we understand "other series" as "other semiotic systems" then yes, but I'm not completely sure if this is exactly what Jakobson and Tynjanov meant in 1928.
  1. There is a sign every time there is a "rélation de renvoi," a "sending-back" relation, in other words, when aliquid stat pro aliquo.
The structure of sign-phenomena as a dialectics between signans and signatum was not invented by Jakobson, but the whole work of Jakobson is centered on this "dramatic" relationship [...] I think there is no other way to define semiotics than the discipline which studies all phenomena (even though tehy constitute the object of another discipline) which are basde upon a relation of referring back ("sending back") to something else. It is a very simple idea, indeed, but it represents the core of the semiotic enterprise, and it represents at the same time the core of all linguistic, aesthetic, and scientific curiosities of Jakobson. (Eco 1987: 114)
This is the first of "a list of eight assumptions on which contemporary semiotic research is basically founded" (ibid 113). In short, the first assumption is that semiotics studies all standing for relations (e.g. a word stands for a concept, a grapheme stands for a sound, and more dubiously, a facial expression stands for an emotion).
  1. Signification is a phenomenon encompassing the entire cultural universe. There are signs everywhere outside verbal language.
As has been previously said, in Jakobson's work every discussion on verbal language is always connected with other communicative phenomena. [...] A more comprehensive list of all systems of possible signs came later, and the first investigation of gestural signs seems to be the study on head positions in "yes" and "no." But the early writings as well as the investigations of phonetic behavior, child language, and aphasia are full of minor observations on the various systems of signification. (Eco 1987: 114)
In cultural semiotics we are acutely aware of this assumption. And it is exactly because such "minor observations" are sprinkled around Jakobson's writings on various topics, that I deem a revision and a more in-depth analysis of his communication model possible.
The psychological notion of FRUSTRATED EXPECTATIONS applied to metrics and to poetic devices in general, consequently the opposition information/redundancy viewed as essential to the poetic principle [...] reformulated as the double order of norm and deviation, and definitively organized in 1958. (Eco 1987: 115)
Relevant for semiotics of art and humor.
The extension of the pair CODE/MESSAGE from the theory of communication to the entire realm of semiotics. (Eco 1987: 116)
This was better realized by Jurgen Ruesch. but no-one really cares about that. It is rather relevant that this extension has lead semiotics to take the communication viewpoint way too seriously, especially in Lotman's semiotics of culture (e.g. culture understood as a single message that humanity sends itself). I do like the communication viewpoint, but in some contexts it actually becomes troublesome for semiotics.
The extension of the pairs SELECTION/COMBINATION and METAPHOR/METONYMY to magic, cinema, visual arts, literature, and aphasic disturbances. Barthes and Lacan have ingeniously translated this notion into other fields, from fashion and advertising to psychoanalysis. Many others have applied the same pairs to architecture, objects, cultural behavior, and so on. It must be stressed, however, that the first comparison between rhetorics and magic appears in 1937 (in the analysis of the myth of the statue of Pushkin). (Eco 1987: 116)
"The Statue in Pushkin's Poetic Mythology" (1937) was re-published in Selected Writings volume V, pp. 237-280. This may be relevant as a companion to Lotman's writings on statues and the city as a text.
The extension of the principles of Prague POETICS to different forms of art, thus establishing the bases of a semiotically oriented aesthetics. Particularly important from this point of view are the principles of the ambiguity and self-focusing quality of aesthetic messages. The following quotation can witness to the work done by Jakobson in this field and is a program for many of the future investigations made by many semiotic analysts of art and literature:
It is evident that many devices studied by poetics are not confined to verbal art. We can refer to the possibility of transposing Wuthering Heights into a motion picture, medieval legends into frescoes and miniatures, or L'Après-midi d' un faune into music, ballet, and graphic art. However ludicrous may appear theidea of the Illiad and the Odyssey in comics, certain structural features of their plot are preserved despite the disappearance of their verbal shape. The question whether Blake's illustrations to the Divina Commedia are or are not adequate is a proof that different arts are comparable. The problems of baroque or any other historical style transgress the frame of a single art. When handling the surrealistic metaphor, we could hardly pass by Max Ernst's pictures or Luis Buñuel's films, the Andalusian Dog and The Golden Age. In short, many poetic features belong not only to the science of language but to the whole theory of signs, that is, to general semiotics. This statement, however, is valid not only for verbal art but also for all varieties of language since language shares many properties with some other systems of signs or even with all of them (pansemiotic features).
Many other transplats could be cited. (Eco 1987: 116-117)
From "Concluding Statement" in Style in Language. Compare this to the idea of "translating out of text" that enables one to deduce the genre characteristics and poetics (in Torop 2000: 26).
  1. All semiotic systems can be described from a unified point of view if they are considered as systems of rules (codes) allowing the generation of messages.
It was Saussure who spoke of "code de la langue," but it has undoubtedly been Jakobson who extrapolates those categories from information theory and extended them to linguistics and semiotics at large. Any further commentary or demonstration would be preposterous. There is, however, one point which deserves some attention. At first glance Jakobson seems to be responding for a confusing generalization by which the term "code" indicates both a syntactic systemof purely differential units devoid of any meaning (for instance, phonological codes; cf. Fundamentals of Language) and correlation of two series of elements systematically arranged term to term or string to string, the items of the first standing for the items of the second. (Eco 1987: 117)
Eco goes over my head here, but I understand that he is opposing the two senses of the notion of code. One being the reversible relation between "two series of elements" and the second being a system of rules, related to distinctive features, redundancy rules, etc.
In 1932 speaking of musicology and linguistics, Jakobson assigns the musical sounds to the kingdom of signs by a sort of Husserlian definition: the elements of music are not simple sounds (sonic substances) but count insofar as they are the goal of an intentional act. (Eco 1987: 120)
That is to say, music is intentionally organized sound.
When there is, as in music, "un langage qui se signifie soi-même," "diversely built and ranked parallelisms of structure enable the interpreter of any immediately perceived musical signans to infer and anticipate a further corresponding constituent (e.g., series) and the coherent ensemble of these constituents ... The code of recognized equivalences between parts and their correlation with the whole is to a great degree a learned, imputed set of parallelisms which are accepted as such in the framework of a given epoch, culture, or musical school." (Eco 1987: 121)
This may become useful in linking Jakobson's notion of code with Lotman's notion of culture. There are differences between them, of course, but the intersection could be interesting in itself. // Also, note the notion of "imputed set of parallelisms" - a hint towards his fourth category of signs, artifice.
  1. A semiotic theory is not only concerned with the structure of sign-vehicles but also with the structure of the universe of vehiculated contents. There cannot be a semiotics without incorporating a semantics. This semantics is not only an extensional one (as in the study of the correspondence between signs and things or states of the world) but also and especially an intensional one, that is, the study of the way in which the universe of sense is culturally organized.
(Eco 1987: 121)
The terms "intensional" and "intentional" are frequently confused, which is why this definition should be kept in mind when approaching Brentano and Husserl in this aspect.
Finally the text on Pushkin of 1937 represents one of the first examples of the analysis of semantic structures at work within a text: rest and movement, death and life, living and still matter. Viewed as abstract roles assumed by the image of the statue in Pushkin's poetry, this work is a satisfactory - even though not yet formalized - instance of analyse actancielle recalling Lévi-Strauss's organization of mythic content, Lotman's analyses of cultural typologies, and Greimas' structural semantics. (Eco 1987: 122)
Oh wow. Another reason to turn to Jakobson's 1937 text.
  1. In every sign exchange there are not only isolated items: semiotics must, as does contemporary linguistics, shift from a theory of single terms and "phrases" to a co-text and context theory. This also means that semiotics should incorporate not only syntactics and semantics but also pragmatics.
A scholar who has always been concerned with language in action cannot but have continuously offered suggestions about the problem of context sensitivity and utterance-in-circumstance. (Eco 1987: 122)
As far as I can see, Jakobson's context or referential function in his typology of language functions is missing this aspect. It may be that I just don't see it yet.
I wonder if even the third level should not fall under the heading of semiotics, at least as far as relations of renvoi can be found here. (Eco 1987: 123)
This is actually a valid critique. For what does Jakobson mean by the study of communication wherein the communication of messages is implied? It is safer to stick with Colin Cherry who says that all communication occurs via signs (that is, on the principle of renvoi). The only exception would be Morris's communization, but even that is included within semiotics, I think.
[...] literary sifns speak of visual signs, both referring back to a semantic system of metaphysical oppositions, such as Life and Death. (Eco 1987: 124; ff. 9)
What is concourse?
Cf. "Grammatical Parallelism and Its Russian Facets," Language, 42 (1966), 399-429, and "The Modular Design of Chinese Regulated Verse," Échanges et Communications: Mélanges offerts à Claude Lévi-Strauss (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), pp. 597-605, where he stresses the striking similarity between the types of symmetry in Chinese classical verse and the approach to these problems in the theories of Chinese physicists. (Eco 1987: 126; ff. 44)
Compare this to Lotman's discussion of symmetry and asymmetry in the paper "On the Semiosphere".


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