Integrationist Notes and Papers. No.11© Roy Harris 2005

Signs and Stories


   •Roy Harris

Suppose you wake up one morning to a medley of sounds coming from somewhere outside the room in which you have been sleeping. Your first semiological task for the day is to 'make sense' of these sounds. What do they mean? In particular, how do they relate to what you remember of the day before, and how you came to be in the place where you now find yourself?

The experience is a familiar one. And perhaps the sounds are familiar too. The dog you can hear barking must be Rover. The creak of the gate you failed to oil yesterday reminds you that this task still remains to be done. No mysteries here. You are waking up to the unsurprising cacophony of Rover challenging the postman, or the milkman, or some other visitor. So far, so good.

But suppose you have no dog Rover, and no front gate either. These are not familiar pre-breakfast sounds. And this jerks you into recalling that you are not at home. You are spending the weekend at the house of friends in the country.

Either way, the same semiological task confronts you; namely, interpreting the acoustic signs first heard on waking. This activity of interpretation is spontaneous, unpremeditated, essential for 'getting your bearings' on the day ahead. It requires what integrationists call 'contextualization': and that is the logical prerequisite for treating anything whatsoever as a 'sign'.

Let us now ask what exactly contextualization comprises. One answer is that contextualization is a matter of fitting signs into stories. So, in the examples offered above, it is a matter of integrating recognition of the noises heard on waking into an unfinished story about your current activities, those last monitored when you went to bed the night before. All this presupposes a view of your own life, a continuum of existence, and a battery of assumptions about this continuum, that, although taken for granted, you would probably find very difficult to spell out and justify in detail.

Is your life itself a story? I am not alluding to the confused distinction drawn by Russian Formalists and their followers between 'story' and 'plot' (or 'narrative'). It would take too long to unscramble that confusion here. For present purposes I shall just assume that a story requires a teller (narrator). All stories are the product of integrational processes that obey the integrationist principle of cotemporality.

But does a story need an author (as distinct from a narrator)? Can one make sense of the notion of an unauthored story that has an existence of its own? Some anthropologists and sociologists have tried, but without conspicuous success. Their research shows, rather, that stories get modified as they are passed on, in accordance with the assumptions of those who transmit and receive them. From an integrationist perspective, all stories are constructed semiologically in praesentia, but by techniques which allow them to be construed, at least superficially, as projections from the past.

The trouble with the notion that signs, in general, acquire their meanings from their role in stories is twofold. First, that seems to presuppose the prior existence of stories. But the notion of a story that exists in advance of its constituent signs is plain nonsense. It would be like supposing that the wall exists in advance of the bricks. So any theory espousing this conception of the relationship between sign and story involves us either in circularity or else in an infinite regress. The second snag is that, without signs, there is no way of distinguishing one story from the next. Theorists have so far failed to provide a way of articulating that distinction without recourse to signs. What they have relied on is a 'we-all-know-what-a-story-is-don't-we?' strategy, and cited examples accordingly. It works for purposes of exposition, but is bankrupt when it comes to explanation.

A revealing example is Frans Masereel's Geshichte ohne Worte (1922), which 'tells the story' of a relationship between a man and a woman in a series of sixty woodcuts without captions. The pictures are dramatic and brilliant. They capture moments in that relationship which are clearly pivotal. But they leave gaps in the account of what was going on between the two protagonists. What was that relationship, exactly? And how did it break down? On the basis of Masereel's images, one might construct any number of 'stories'.

From an integrationist perspective, signs take semiological priority over stories. Nevertheless particular stories, once established, can provide contexts within which the constituent signs may be interpreted. This seemingly puzzling relationship lies at the heart of the way certain stories can 'appeal' to an audience or readership, and appear to 'reflect' the consumer's own experience. The stories, although fictional, are then judged to be veridical, or to have verisimilitude, to have a 'deeper' meaning, etc. But all such judgments are based on prior assumptions about the way signs function in other forms of communication (than stories).

For those who do not accept this, presumably the last-ditch position has to be that there is no communication without stories; that stories are fundamental to the concept of communication itself, and hence to the self-understanding of individuals and societies. Let us call this the 'story-first' position. It is difficult to see how any case could be made out in support of it. For there are many other forms of communication. When A says 'Good morning' to B and B replies 'Good morning', there is communication but no story. An account of this exchange can, to be sure, be presented as a story. E.g. 'A said "Good morning" to B and B then said "Good morning" to A'. But to confuse the two - the encounter and the subsequent description of the encounter - is a category mistake. Unfortunately, that mistake seems to pervade much current discussion of the question, and is prevalent in 'deconstructions' of it.

The confusion has been perpetuated by such distinguished theorists as Lévi-Strauss, for whom a myth is a story that 'expresses' certain privileged beliefs, cultural assumptions, views of society, etc. Others have sought in myths the realization of archetypal figures, events and fears. But stories are stories, for all that. If I come home saying that I saw the Lord Mayor knocked down by a bus in Woodstock Road, I am telling a story. I may be wrong. Someone else may have been knocked down. Or it may all have been a figment of my imagination. Or an attempt to deceive my listeners. But its status as a story has nothing to do with anything I need to substantiate by reference to the theories of Lévi-Strauss or Derrida. Nor do I need to dig into The Golden Bough to find out whether Frazer would construe this as a version of some primitive account of killing the king. In the end, it is my story, and its context is my experience. I cannot attribute any other kind of credibility to it. Nor, mutatis mutandis, can those who subsequently pass on my story to others (for whatever reasons).

What often leads critics astray is the fact that contextualization, which is a sine qua non for the identification of signs, is commonly attempted publicly by telling a story, or even a metastory. This makes it appear, superficially, as if signs and stories stood ontologically in an indissoluble relation of mutual dependence. No story: no sign. And vice versa. This ontological muddle - and nothing else - was the whole foundation of post-structuralism.

Masereel, F. (1922), Geschichte ohne Worte, Munich, Kurt Wolff.


© Roy Harris, Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics, Oxford, 2010