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Jean-Pierre Bertrand, François Provenzano et Valérie Stiénon
p. 13-17
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1Raising the question of connections between semiotics and literature inevitably leads to giving due consideration to a period that may seem to belong to the past. Indeed the emergence of semiotics as an institutionalized discipline occurred at a time of radical paradigmatic change in ways of approaching literary texts. During the 1960s, in a context influenced by structuralism, linguistic terminology became the new scientific approach to the description of literary works as opposed to any philological intention. Within a relatively short time the encounter between semiotics and literature resulted in a significant number of concepts and tools, from dialogism and polyphony to semanalysis, narratology, or structural semantics.

  • 1 Pavel (1988, p. 9) remarks on the publication in 1983 and 1984 of a number of philosophical and lit (...)

2However, we can only note that this union was not going to last, at least in its initial form, beyond the 1980s — Antoine Compagnon (1998, p. 9) locates this ‘golden age’ of theory between 1966 and 1973, the year of the first oil crisis. Compagnon claims that such historical dating can be explained in the light of the polemic relationship between theory and common sense: ‘theory develops when the premises of ordinary discourse on literature are not taken for granted any more’ (Compagnon 1998, p. 15, our translation). Now the end of the post-war thirty year boom coincided with growing scepticism about what criticism can do, and indeed with an institutionalisation of criticism that tended to blunt its oppositional capacity. In his famous study Mirage linguistique (1988, The Spell of Language: Poststructuralism and Speculation) Thomas Pavel had been led to a similar though more polemical assessment as he sees the linguistic paradigm of ‘intellectual modernization’ as losing its hold from the beginning of the 1980s.1

  • 2 We can also refer to Rossana De Angelis’ recently published study (2014) which focuses on semiotics (...)

3After this theoretical climax semiotics turned to other objects while literary studies recorded the technicist and textualist development as one of several in the history of a discipline2 that is still deeply influenced by a traditional historicist approach (monographies on authors or on schools). And we cannot but observe that these notions and theories have pervaded and at times perverted the teaching of literature, at least in secondary schools but sometimes also at university level.

  • 3 This is the title of the course taught at the University of Liège. We can also note that the term ‘ (...)

4The first aim of the present volume is to capture the encounter between semiotics and literature in the perspective of a history of ideas, i.e. inquiring into what elements in the 1960s were favourable to it, why it gained momentum, then declined. This first set of questions also aims at listing the conceptual results of the encounter, and how they fared in the long term: whether they survived, in what form, or disappeared, and why? Finally this historical perspective should also make it possible to account for the logic of dispersion (both synchronically and diachronically) of the several semiotics that emerged (and lasted for shorter or longer periods) when confronted with literature. No need to recall here the differences between approaches favoured by Greimas, Eco, Kristeva, Barthes (the various Barthes, we ought to say), those several authors who all belong to the canon of what is still sometimes called ‘semiology of literature’3: we would like to shed light on this tension between centrifugal and centripedal forces within the field of semiotics as we located them in their intellectual context (inextricably involving theory, sociology, when not politics). Gianfranco Marrone’s contribution particularly meets this ambition as it bears on the ‘golden age’ of literary semiotics, and more specifically on three of its most famous representatives (Greimas, Barthes, and Eco) so as to better understand some of the aporia in current semiotic research.

  • 4 We sincerely thank Philippe Hamon, the ‘Groupe µ’ (Jacques Dubois, Francis Édeline, Jean-Marie Klin (...)

5This historical dimension is particularly present in the section consisting of testimonies. As we questioned some prominent actors of literary semiotics, we tried to trace routes, to measure narrowing or widening distances, to understand affinities or dislikes, in fact to capture intellectual passions in their human temporality.4 Philippe Hamon, who developed a theory of characters and descriptions in literature, recalls the context in which the discipline appeared: its first aim was to go beyond traditional literary history; he also discusses how he used semiology in his own research on ideology and image as they show through the words in novels. The ‘Groupe µ’ traces the genesis and reception of its landmark study Rhétorique générale, but also how this particular work is actually part of a wider research programme that aims at no less than uncovering the ‘sources of meaning’ — a highly theoretical ambition which its authors are ready to stand up for against some current disciplinary trends. Lastly Marc Angenot exposes how his notion of ‘social discourse’ actually relies on a semiologic basis and how he developed it towards a new reading of the history of ideas.

6Our investigation revolves on a second axis, namely an inversion of the initial question: instead of ‘what semiotics for literature? (and when?)’ we now ask ‘what literature for semiotics? (and what for?)’. The perspective is epistemological, since we wish to shed light on the relationships between semiotics and literature from the viewpoint of the kind of knowledge involved in the two fields. In this respect we can distinguish three kinds of relationship.

7In the first (and probably most traditional) kind the literary text is perceived as object of an analysis carried out with the tools and method of semiotics. This begs the following question: in what element(s) in a literary text is a semiotic approach interested?; which leads to another: what kind of literary texts will semioticians turn to, and why should they priviledge semiotics? To answer those questions and thus illustrate the first kind of relationship, we have brought together a number of contributions under the heading ‘Applications’: Hamid Reza Shairi and Somayeh Kariminejad outline a semiotics of “body awakening” while they use models of tensive semiotics to examine two Persian literary texts and suggest that literature and semiotics are both included in the dialectics of survenir (sudden happening); and parvenir (gradual event); Amir Biglari explores the thymic switch in a poem by Hugo in the light of tensive semiotics as developed in the study of passionality; the dynamic of passions is also involved in Houda Landolsi’s discussion of Diderot’s La Religieuse as she uses the tools of Greimas’ semiotics to comment on the work’s narrative programmes.

8A second, somehow more balanced, kind of relationship between semiotics and literature is to be found in an approach that sees literature as a welcome support to (or a good pretext for) semiotic developments. All major semiotic issues (enunciation, narratives, sensory components, etc.) can be illustrated and further explored in literary texts. Two questions can be raised in this respect: on the one hand can those issues be extended to other fields outside literature (for instance the visual arts), on the other what are the benefits of a literary approach for semioticians? Such issues are at the heart of Sémir Badir’s and Denis Bertrand’s contributions. The former examines a category that is extensively used in literary studies, namely, a work’s ‘theme’, as a tool to deconstruct disciplinary boundaries within the humanities; the latter compares Zola’s novels with Cézanne’s paintings to both expose that meaning is one however different the languages and shed light on aesthetic and conceptual discontinuities between words and images through semiotic instruments. The same boundary zone is explored by Bernard Vouilloux, who calls upon a long tradition of rhetorical, philosophical and aesthetic studies on ekphrasis to discuss intersemiotic translation.

9Finally, a third, and less obvious, kind of relationship reverses the hierarchy present in the first kind since it consists in considering that literature itself (but what literature?) produces a semiotic theory in its own right, somehow in the way Gilles Deleuze had derived a Proustian semiology from À la Recherche du temps perdu. Exploring this kind of relationship opens onto an array of questions that touch upon the aesthetic conditions of meaning and of its theoretisation. Pascal Durand’s article is a significant landmark in this field as it shows at the hand of Mallarmé’s work to what extent a poet’s aesthetics can be branded by a deep-seated theoretical distinction between meaning and signification.

10While it touches upon history and epistemology, the issue on which this volume focuses also relates to disciplines, and more specifically of delimitations and fusions between disciplines. Can you be a literary semiotician or conversely a semiotic literary critic? What other disciplines are either called upon or excluded in such conjunction? If you work on literary texts, what are the boundaries (or absence thereof) between semiotics and rhetoric, critique, sociology, narratology, sociocriticism, anthropology, or still other disciplines? This third axis shaping our investigations can be found in several of the testimonies mentioned above. It is particularly present in contributions that squarely question the relevance of semiotics among the new avenues in literary studies. Christine Chollier examines how textual semiotics as inspired by François Rastier has contributed to translation studies. Nathalie Roelens explores the boundary zones between urban semiotics and literary geocriticism, two approaches that both illustrate the humanities’ growing interest in spaciality. Along a similar course combining disciplinary genealogy and intellectual argumentation, Pierre Popovic stands up for a form of sociocriticism that relies on semiotics but is attentive to a dimension that is often repressed in semiotics, namely the texts’ social and historical inscription.

11Together these various contributions and testimonies cannot in any way claim to give an exhaustive view on the relationship between semiotics and literature. Instead of locating the issue on the past we tried to trace its consequences in the present, unavoidably accompanied by genealogical inquiries. We will have achieved our objective if the present collection helps to better understand the theoretical and disciplinary strands that are currently woven in the field of literary studies, and more generally of the humanities. It is indeed this horizon that the tension of literature towards semiotics eventually points to, and that can be perceived all through the collection: the necessity to acknowledge the position of literature as one of the first objects of the humanities conceived of as sciences of human signification.

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Ablali, Driss & Kastberg Sjöblom, Margareta (éds, 2010), Linguistique et littérature. Cluny, 40 ans après, Besançon, Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté.

Compagnon, Antoine (1998), Le Démon de la théorie. Littérature et sens commun, Paris, Seuil.

De Angelis, Rossana (2014), Il testo conteso. Semiotiche ed ermeneutiche nella seconda metà del Novecento, Pisa, Edizioni ITS.

Deleuze, Gilles (1964), Proust et les signes, Paris, PUF, 1964 ; rééd. 2010.

Del Lungo, Andrea (2014), La Fenêtre. Sémiologie et histoire de la représentation littéraire, Paris, Seuil, « Poétique ».

Gardes Tamine, Joëlle & Hubert, Marie-Claude (2004), Dictionnaire de la critique littéraire, Paris, Armand Colin.

Klinkenberg, Jean-Marie (2002), « Sémiotique », in Aron, Saint-Jacques & Viala (éds), Le Dictionnaire du littéraire, Paris, PUF, pp. 706-708.

Pavel, Thomas (1988), Le Mirage linguistique. Essai sur la modernisation intellectuelle, Paris, Minuit, « Critique ».

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1 Pavel (1988, p. 9) remarks on the publication in 1983 and 1984 of a number of philosophical and literary studies that stand up for rationalism and criticize the structuralist and post-structuralist paradigm.

2 We can also refer to Rossana De Angelis’ recently published study (2014) which focuses on semiotics and hermeneutics in the second half of the 20th century. On the other hand this particular moment in literary theory is still significant today, as testified by the recent volume commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Cluny conference (Ablali & Kastberg Sjöblom eds., 2010), in which discourse analysis is prominent.

3 This is the title of the course taught at the University of Liège. We can also note that the term ‘semiology’ associated with literary studies seems to be in fashion again as testified by Andrea Del Lungo’s recent work (2014) with its subtitle ‘Semiology and history of literary representation’. In his entry on ‘Semiotics’ in Dictionnaire du littéraire (2002, p. 708) Jean-Marie Klinkenberg refers to a literary semiology or semiotics that is now called poetics, while Dictionnaire de la critique littéraire claims that literary semiology has merged with linguistic text analysis (Gardes Tamine & Hubert 2004, p. 199).

4 We sincerely thank Philippe Hamon, the ‘Groupe µ’ (Jacques Dubois, Francis Édeline, Jean-Marie Klinkenberg), and Marc Angenot, who agreed to answer our questions. Cesare Segre had also accepted our invitation; unfortunately he died before we could join him. We would like to thank our colleague and friend Luciano Curreri, who had contacted Segre and carefully prepared an interview with him. Julia Kristeva also granted us an interview for this issue, which had already been transcripted; she finally didn’t give her consent to the publishing.

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Jean-Pierre Bertrand, François Provenzano et Valérie Stiénon, « Presentation », Signata, 5 | 2014, 13-17.

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Jean-Pierre Bertrand, François Provenzano et Valérie Stiénon, « Presentation », Signata [En ligne], 5 | 2014, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2016, consulté le 15 novembre 2019. URL :

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Jean-Pierre Bertrand

Université de Liège

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François Provenzano

Université de Liège

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Valérie Stiénon

Université Paris 13

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