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Two nibs


Émile Benveniste
in conversation with
Pierre Daix, 1968,
translated by Matt Reeck.

Published in Les Lettres françaises, no. 1242 (July 24–30, 1968), p. 10–13.

Reprinted here with the kind permission of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (AIBL) in Paris.

Structuralism and linguistics

Les événements — the “events”. Students dissatisfied with the policies of the De Gaulle government took to the streets in May 1968 in what are now referred to as the “events.” These protests shook the French government from the laissez faire policies of the previous thirty years. They mark the turning point of an intellectual ferment whose noteworthy members include the vanguard of post-structuralist, Feminist, psychoanalytic, and deconstructive thought — an intellectual renaissance that continues to define our era.


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Pierre Daix: You have lived through, over these last thirty or even forty years, not only the transformation of linguistics, but also its rise to a central position in the humanities, a “guiding discipline,” as it were.


I want to ask you how you would characterize this evolution, this transformation, from a linguistic perspective. But, maybe, to begin with, to contextualize things, I would like to ask you a personal question, similar to a question that we earlier asked Jakobson here. How did you get interested in linguistics?


Émile Benveniste: I had the opportunity to begin a scientific career when I was very young and in large part due to the influence of a very great linguist, a man who contributed greatly to training linguists and to defining linguistics during, you could say, the first ten or twenty years of this century — that is to say, my teacher, Antoine Meillet.


It was because I met him while still early on during my studies at the Sorbonne, and because I was clearly much more inclined to research than teaching, that our meeting proved decisive for me. He taught comparative grammar exclusively. But, to be clear, the students of Meillet were in part absorbing the teaching of Ferdinand de Saussure, such as it existed during his time in Paris. This is very important for anyone who writes the biography of French linguistics, even though the Saussure who taught for ten years at the École des Hautes Études wasn’t Saussure as he is universally known today.


He was in some way a comparativist.


He was strictly a comparativist, extremely young and precocious, who had been discovered and adopted by a man who knew what makes a great man, Michel Bréal. We come here to the real beginning of linguistics in France. Bréal saw what Saussure might become, what he already was. He had had a true genius for comparative linguistics and brought new methods to the reconstitution of Indo-European.


That happened when?


That happened in 1878. Saussure joined the École des Hautes Études when he was twenty-four, and he taught there from 1881 to 1891. Then, forced somewhat by circumstances, he returned to Geneva when he was thirty-four, abandoning the beginnings of a brilliant career in Paris, which Bréal would certainly have helped him develop further.


In Paris, he trained many eminent scholars of the future, all of the same generation, notably Antoine Meillet and Maurice Grammont. He trained them in comparative studies, that is the analysis and comparison of several languages of the same family and the systematic reconstitution of their ancient forms through the tools of historical linguistics. Here is at once the discipline as a whole, and also, you could say, the context in which linguistics developed as a historical field, a comparative field, and a field looking to reconstitute prehistory. All the imperatives of comparative grammar were by their nature rigorous and encouraged yet greater rigor.


That’s what personally attracted me to the field. It was the specific nature of the laws that linguistics was already setting down, and at the same time how this opened up the possible extension of this method to other language families. And, effectively, we can say that the method of comparative grammar, such as Saussure set out and Meillet developed in his turn, was the model for how we approach the comparative study of other language families. When we classify today the languages of Oceania and map out their genealogies, or when we try to do the same for the immense domain covered by Amerindian (Native American) languages, it’s always, more or less, the Indo-European model we use as a paradigm.


You mean to say that comparative linguistics continues to develop.


Yes, very much so, and it has made great strides — a point we’ll get to later. There’s no doubt that all specialized branches of linguistics are destined to pass through this phase. In fact in France and in America as well, researchers are working hard to formulate these [non-Indo-European] language families, to systematize them, and to see how we could represent the linguistic history of different continents.


There’s a lot of work being done on African languages; several schools are busy with this work. And their methods aren’t out-dated, not at all. To the contrary, I think that comparative linguistics will be reborn completely transformed, and this is already happening. It goes without saying that what we do nowadays doesn’t resemble in the least what was going on thirty or forty years ago.


That’s how linguistics saw its essential work back then. There was also a general linguistics, but it took insights gleaned from comparative linguistics and applied them in general terms to its own objects of study. The material of linguistics was found in texts. And these texts were for the most part — I mean in the case of Indo-European languages — very old, Homeric, Vedic (and today bear in mind the new dimension of Mycenaean texts that draw back the prehistory of Greek by some five hundred years); and so it was necessary it interpret them as ancient texts of a culture that we no longer understand.


A philological-historical perspective is of chief importance in such a study. There were prerequisites you had to address before approaching the matter, first steps that, it goes without saying, don’t exist for those who study French, English, or living languages. I wouldn’t say there was any prejudice against the living languages, not at all; only that we always thought of a living language as a result of a historical evolution.


And here we come to someone who was very important, if his reputation has diminished since his time, and that’s Gilliéron, with the school of French dialectics. Gilliéron and his students thought, and rightly so, that historical reconstitution can’t recreate the complex reality of a living language and that you must first note the richness of idioms — collect them via questionnaires and then locate them on linguistic maps.


Spoken data.


Spoken data, oral and delineated on maps; it’s what we called linguistic geography. Those were the two poles of linguistics in the first years of the century. As for Saussure, we hardly read him. He had left for Geneva and stopped writing almost immediately.


You know this history, right? He was a man who lived especially after his death. We should bear in mind that when he taught general linguistics — what his adherents published after his death in A Course in General Linguistics — he did so half-heartedly. It’s not necessary to think of Saussure as harassed and muzzled, not at all. The history of Saussure’s thought hasn’t yet been detailed. There are many other documents, particularly letters that show what his state of mind was when at work.


Saussure rejected just about everything that others were doing during his lifetime. He thought that contemporary notions were baseless, that they all had unproven presuppositions, and most of all that linguistics as a field didn’t know what it was doing. All of Saussure’s efforts — and to answer your question, this is of utmost importance, this was the transformation of linguistics — were bent on getting the linguist to question what he did; to open his eyes to the intellectual biases from which he worked and to what principles were when, somewhat instinctively, he thought about languages or compared or analyzed them.


What is, after all, linguistics? Everything started with that, and it was there that Saussure provided definitions that have now became classic, on the nature of the linguistic sign, about the different axes upon which language can be studied, how language manifests itself to us, etc. And he set out all of this in a painful fashion and without teaching it directly, except for three years toward the end of his life — that is, from 1907 to 1911 — when he was forced by a colleague’s retirement to teach a general linguistics course.


This is the material that Bally and Sechehaye published and upon which is based, directly or not, all of modern linguistics. Something in this, some of the fundamental principles, must already, I think, be evident in what Saussure taught in his youth in Paris: comparative grammar lessons on Greek, Latin, and Germanic languages, in particular, as he devoted a lot of attention to Germanic languages. And it is clear that early on an obsession overcame Saussure that would cause him to suffer in silence for the rest of his life, a questioning of the meaning of language and of how language differs from all other objects of scientific knowledge.


Saussure’s ideas were more readily understood in France, and yet it took just as long for them to take hold there as elsewhere. So through Saussure’s teaching of comparative grammar, it was really general linguistic insights that passed down to Meillet. We saw this basic scenario change as Saussurian concepts gradually gained in popularity, or as they were rediscovered by others, or as they converged in particular ways, especially in America. Men like Bloomfield — and this is little known — discovered Saussure on their own, even though we think of American linguistics and especially the Bloomfieldian school to have developed on its own. There’s proof that Bloomfield knew Saussure’s ideas and that he realized how important they were.


Bloomfield leads us up to the 1940s.


There’s a review on Saussure written by Bloomfield that dates from 1924. Sapir, the American linguist and anthropologist, had an entirely different training from him. But still Sapir too came upon some essential discoveries, like the distinction between phonemes and sounds, something that matches up rather well with Saussure’s differentiation between la langue and la parole.


So independent currents finally converged to produce a very compelling theoretic linguistics, taking itself to be a proper investigative field of knowledge and proceeding relentlessly as such; that is, trying to produce a body of definitions and to set down its ideas organically. It gave rise to very different approaches.


For one, it led directly to structuralism. For someone who is used to doing linguistic research and who had structuralist interests from early on — I’m talking about me — it’s a strange thing to witness the current vogue of this approach, misunderstood and discovered belatedly and at a moment when structuralism in linguistics has already lost its allure. In my work, I’ve briefly traced the history of the usage of this word.


In 1968, the notion of structuralism in linguistics became exactly forty years old. That’s a long time for a doctrine in a rapidly developing field of knowledge. Today there are efforts, like Chomsky’s, to attack structuralism. And so the challenging of linguistic fact has come full circle.


So you trace structuralism in linguistics to that time when scholars were preoccupied with putting proper linguistic structures into place?


Before anything else, it was about showing in the material constituents of language and in a certain way in the signifying elements as well, two things, the two fundamental givens of all structuralist investigations of language. First, what are the pieces of the puzzle, and, secondly, how they fit together. But it’s not at all easy at the beginning to identify these pieces.


Take sound, the non-signifying part of language. What are the sounds of a specific language? Not language in general, as you cannot ask that question, but of a specific language; that means what are the sounds that have distinct values, that bring about differences in meaning? And which sounds, although they exist, aren’t distinctive but are only variations or approximations of fundamental sounds? We know that the number of such sounds is fixed, no fewer than twenty, no more than sixty or so. Why is there so little variation? When you study a language, you have to decide which sounds are distinct.


So in the case of French if we say pauvre or povre, it makes no difference; it’s only a question of different local origins, right, and it makes no difference in meaning. But there are languages in which this difference, or something comparable, will give you two totally separate words. And this is the proof that there is no difference between ó and ò in French, while in other languages there is.


But then in French it does matter, for example if you say pôle and Paul.


Of course, like with saute and sotte and so on. It’s a phonological difference dependent upon context. We have in French, and it might mean “skin” or a “pot,” it doesn’t matter, but we don’t have a po with an open “o” simply because the conditions of articulation in French require that the final “o” in a monosyllablic word be closed and not open, while at the same time marchai and marchais have two different phonemes because they differentiate verb tense.


You can see how complex it is. Step by step you must study very attentively the entire language in order to decide what’s a phoneme and what’s a variant. This is the non-signifying layer, the one that deals only with sounds. After this there’s a level at which we face the same problem in much more difficult circumstances, when we deal with elements that are signifying or with portions of signifying elements, and so forth. And so the first problem: to know what the pieces of the puzzle are.


The second essential work for structural analysis is to see precisely how these constitutive parts fit together. They can do so in extremely numerous ways, but they always refer back to a number of basic conditions. For example, it’s not possible for such-n-such and such-n-such to obtain at the same time; it’s not possible for such-n-such to be a syllable.


There are languages like Serbo-Crotian in which “r” by itself, like in “krk,” constitutes a syllable. In French, it’s impossible; you have to have a vowel. And thus, the structural laws of which each language has so many. We can never discover them all. It’s a very complex system when we consider language as an object in the way that a physicist analyzes an atom. These are, in broad outline, the principles of structural research.


When we extrapolate to use them in reference to society, everything takes on much weightier dimensions. Instead of a and é, we talk of men and women, or kings and servants. The linguistic givens immediately take on a greater scope and accessibility that linguistic facts considered alone and for themselves do not have. This is what explains perhaps why these ideas are less potent when applied to realities different from their original one.


At the same time, when it comes to serious thinking, structuralism has had its influence, whether in mythology or in mathematics. An epistemologist could show you how it’s spread to logic, to math. In fact there is a type of structuralism in mathematics that has followed the work of the first mathematicians, which was more or less intuitive. All this represents in the main the same movement of thought and the same way of objectifying reality. This is what is important.


A moment ago you said that Chomsky broke with this mode of research.


Yes, he considers language as production, and that’s entirely different. A structuralist has first to assemble a corpus. Even if it deals with the language that you and I are talking, you must first formalize it, put it down on paper. Decide which books represent the language, which two hundred pages of text will be converted into material, then classified, analyzed, etc. You must begin with the fundamentals.


But with Chomsky, it’s exactly the opposite. He takes for his starting point the spoken word as product. How do we produce language? We reproduce nothing. We seem to use a certain number of models. Each person invents their own language and invents it throughout their entire life. And everyone invents their own language moment to moment and each does so in their own unique way, changing constantly. To say “hello” every day to someone, this is each time a reinvention.


All the more so when it’s a matter of phrases. Then it’s not the constitutive elements that count but the organization of the whole, the original arrangement that the model couldn’t have directly given and so that the individual makes up. Each speaker makes up their language. How? This is an essential question because it cuts to the heart of the problem of language acquisition. When a child has learned how to say “the soup is too hot,” she will know how to say “the soup isn’t hot enough” or even “the milk is too hot.” She will be able to construct phrases like this that use in part the given structures but that also update them by filling them with new objects and so on.


But don’t you think — I’m not saying it actually happened like this — that an approach like Chomsky’s could only have come after structuralism, that it presupposes structuralism’s existence?


It’s very possible. First as a reaction, perhaps, against exclusively mechanistic considerations and empiricism of structure, especially in its American version. In America, structuralism shunned any use of what it viewed as “mentalism.” Mentalism was the enemy, the devil; that is, everything that referred to what we consider to be thought. There was only one thing that counted, recorded data, heard or read, that you could in fact organize.


When it comes to speaking man [humankind], thought is king. Speaking man is defined by his ability to speak; he is his ability to speak. We can then presume that there is a unique way that humans think and that gives us the ability to reproduce certain models but in infinite variety. How do these models link up? What are the laws that govern the shift from one syntactic structure to another, from one type of statement to another? How do positive statements reverse themselves in negative statements? How can a phrase in the active voice transform into something in the passive voice? These are the types of problems that arise with the transformationsists because it is truly a matter of transformation.


So at that level and approached as such, the phonetic structure of a language isn’t important at all. It’s first and foremost a matter of thinking of language as an organization and then thinking about how we are capable of organizing our own language. This is what explains that there was a rather curious return in Chomsky toward the ancient philosophers and a sort of reinterpretation of the view of Descartes concerning the connection between the spirit and language. All of this is at once very exciting and very technical, very dry, and algebraic.


But, along these lines, we have brought into play a part of the true Saussurian inheritance that has been developed considerably: I mean, this study of signs that he envisioned, semiotics.


In effect, this is an important question and one that is perhaps still more current than we suspect. It’s in fact something very new. We know that when we talk, it’s to say something, to communicate. We also know that language is made up of isolate elements of which each has a meaning and that are articulated according to a code. These are the elements that dictionaries catalog and next to each of which they give a definition, which we take as their meaning.


But the simple fact that dictionaries exist implies in reality a world of problems. What is meaning? If you look carefully, you will see that dictionaries juxtapose many disparate things. If we look for “sun,” we will find a definition more or less originating from the concept of a star. If we look up “do,” we will find around fifteen different rubrics. In Littré, with subdivisions, there are eighty rubrics. Do they really carry the same meaning? Are there not many meanings? We don’t know.


And in fact we are the first to pose for ourselves this type of question.


Absolutely. Well, in general, we say that usage determines everything. But we come up against some fundamental questions: how does language allow this polysemy? How does meaning organize itself? More generally, what are the conditions for something to become signifying? Anyone could make up a language, but such a language doesn’t exist in the most literal sense because there don’t exist any two people to use it as their native language.


Language is above all a consensus. But how is it reached? A baby is born into a language community, she learns this language, and this appears instinctive, as natural as the physical growth of plants or animals, but what she learns is not in actuality natural but rather something that belongs to the world of humans. Language use is the defining characteristic of humankind — fixing objects with language and then translating them, using language to define all the intellectual feats that it allows. It is thus something very fundamental: the dynamic process of language, which allows you to invent new concepts and so to remake the language in a self-reflexive way.


And so all of this is the realm of meaning. Furthermore there are basic categories of meaning, distinctions that language gives rise to or not, for example the differences in color, to make the well known point. There aren’t two languages that organize colors in the same way. Are our eyes different? And so certain colors don’t have a lot of “meaning” whereas others have a lot, and so on. But here at the same time — this is what I’m trying to do now — I’m tempted to introduce distinctions. We proposed the idea of meaning as a coherent concept, operating from within a language.


I would say that meaning has two domains or modalities, and I call them semiotic and semantic. The Saussurian sign is in reality a semiotic unit, in other words the unit of meaning — the unit that is recognized as having meaning. All words that you can find in a French text, all those that are French, have meaning. But it’s not important for us to know what this meaning is. At the semiotic level, it’s just this: to be recognized as having meaning or not. It is a simply a matter of yes or no.


While the semantic domain ...


The semantic domain, that’s the “meaning” resulting from the linking up, from the appropriation of context and from the modification of different signs when they come together. This is completely unpredictable. It is the opening up to the world, while the semiotic domain is enclosed meaning and in a certain sense self-referential.


So the semiotic sense is immediate, and in some way without context or history.


Yes, like that. We recognize it by its ability to stand alone: we must know whether, for example, the word “role” is commonly thought to have meaning. Yes. “Role,” yes. “Ril,” no.


In French, no.


In French, “ril” means nothing, it’s not signifying, while “role” does signify. That’s the semiotic level; it’s completely different from trying to decide the “role” of science in the world or the “role” of an actor. That’s the semantic level: then you must understand and differentiate. It’s at this level that “to do” or “to take” has eighty meanings. These are semantic matters. So there are two completely different dimensions. And if we don’t start by acknowledging these differences, then I fear we will remain shackled by vagueness.


But that’s my personal view and must be demonstrated. We have to set out gradually an entire body of definitions in this immense sphere that doesn’t limit itself to language. And that leads us to culture. Culture is also a system that distinguishes what has meaning or not. The differences in cultures point to this.


I’ll take an example that not linguistic: for us, white is the color of light, of light-heartedness, of youth. But in China, it’s the color of mourning. This is an example of cultural meaning, a matching up of a certain color and a certain behavior that finally results in an inherent social value. All of this emerges from a network of differences: white and black don’t mean the same things in the West as in the Far East. Everything cultural refers back to values, to a system of values. Yes, these are the values that language inscribes. But it’s very difficult to thrust values into language because language carries with it all sorts of cultural inheritance; language doesn’t transform as quickly as culture. And it’s just this that brings about semantic dispersion.


Take the word “man” — it’s the first example that comes to mind. On the one hand, you have the term used to designate something; but on the other hand this word has many connotations or resonances. For example, the “honest man,” an idea that dates from, and is evident in a certain way of talking, classical French.


At the same time, a phrase like “I’m your man” goes back to feudal society. So you see the stratification of culture on display in different phrases. Both of these are included in today’s definition of the word because these phrases are still used and understood. We see here a counterpart to the cumulative definition of culture. The full weight of other cultures folds into our culture. And it is in this way that we can use language to inform us about culture.


You made a very important point when you emphasized that humans aren’t born in nature but in culture. I think that one of the ruptures that separates the linguistics that you do from that of the eighteenth century is that the first linguists thought that language was a part of nature and tried to find natural processes that explained why humans have language.


Yes, there was at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, and in particular in the first phase of discoveries that gave rise to comparative grammar, this idea that we were going back to the origins of the human spirit, that we were dealing with the beginnings of the ability to use language. We wondered whether the verb came first or the noun. We thought about its genesis as though it were a concrete, single event. Now we know that such questions have no scientific grounding.


What comparative grammar tells us, even the most refined, that which arises from the most favorable historical circumstances, like the comparative grammar of Indo-European languages or by the same token those of Semitic languages for which records are available from quite an early date; what this reconstruction shows us is the product of several thousand years. That is, a tiny fraction of the linguist history of humankind. The people that in 1500 BCE were painting the caves of Lascaux were people who talked. That’s clear. There’s no communal life without language. So it’s impossible to date the origin of language, let alone the origin of society.


But we’ll never know how they spoke. We’re certain that we wouldn’t be able to reconstitute even the most basic elements of their language despite the most painstaking efforts. No one believes any longer that linguistic investigations will reveal that language is natural. Today we see language as belonging to a society, to a culture. And if I say that we aren’t born in nature but in a culture, it is to say that every child in every epoch from the most distant prehistory to today learns the rudiments of a culture at the same time as they learn a language.


All languages have a cultural function. There is no way to imagine someone coming up with an expression in a vacuum. Invented languages, spontaneous languages, languages that aren’t taught through human intercourse are fictions. Language is always taught to the young and always vis-à-vis what we call realities — realities defined as cultural elements, of course.


Realities defined in two ways: first as part of an inheritance, as culture is something we inherit and as it passes on acquired knowledge; and also, as the immediate context, the present.


Absolutely. What a child gets when she learns to speak is the world in which she really lives, the world that language gives her and against which she learns to react. In learning the name of something, she obtains a way of getting that thing. In using the word, she acts on the world and understands subconsciously the mechanism at issue. This is the power to act, to transform, to adapt, which is the key to the human relation between language and culture, a relation of a necessary integration.


And, at the same time, I’m also answering your question about the role of linguistics as a guiding discipline. There is this difference in the life of human relations in that language is an unconscious mechanism and behavior is conscious: we believe that we behave as we do for reasons that we choose, or in any case that we have a choice. This isn’t important, but the mechanism of signification is. It’s here that linguistics can become a guiding discipline in showing us how mental states emerge from worldly experience or how mental states shape worldly experience, I don’t know which it is.


From a very young age children have a way of organizing things logically. Piaget insisted that children could form these operative schemes and that this goes hand in hand with acquiring language. This complex network appears in a profound way in major intellectual theories, in the structure of mathematics, and in society’s fundamental relationships. I think that certain Marxist concepts, duly elaborated, could gradually come to bear upon these structuralist paradigms, of which language bears the most easily analyzable model. But it’s wrong for me to talk about these theories as though they are already completed and static, as though all you have to do is go look for them in some book, when in fact they are what I’m thinking about and need more elaboration.


The history that you have recounted has its origins in the era of comparative linguistics. We tried our best, through comparing the oldest languages we could find, to define this mechanism of the human spirit or at least the fundamental mechanisms. And now we realize that in overturning many research methodologies, linguistics has finally come back to its first object of interest, but by very different means which are, I think, much more scientific.


Much more scientific because it no longer is a question of origins but rather of foundations and of the beginning of everything symbolic in language that has the power to signify.




Symbolization, the fact that language is rightly a domain of meaning. And, in the end, all culture is a mechanism of a symbolic order. We ascribe meaning to certain gestures, and none to others. This is true, but why? We’ll have to identify, deconstruct, and then classify the signifying elements of our culture; this is something that hasn’t yet been done. This will require a rare skill of objectification. We will see that there is a semantic code that passes through all these cultural elements and that organizes them on several levels.


There is then the way that these elements assert their meaning, how today we give more meaning to certain images — the hierarchy that we establish among new values. The importance that certain questions of age now have: thirty years ago the notion of youth didn’t mean the same thing that it does today. There is a total displacement that seeps through all the elements, material or not, of culture that goes from dress to the deepest level. The hierarchy, the reciprocal effects of its values, and then the models that arise, the objects that we want — all of this folds into our culture and has no longer anything in common with 1910 or 1930 or 1960.


So now not only is linguistics in the central position you spoke of at the beginning, as a guiding discipline, but it is also inextricably tied to the entire enterprise of humanistic discourse and research.


Linguistics is inextricably tied to other disciplines in so much as others join it in research that uses parallel models. Linguistics can give models to other disciplines whose material is more difficult to objectify, like culturology, if I can use this term; models that needn’t be slavishly imitated but that could lead to a certain combined system, around which disciplines involving culture could then set themselves up in the wake of linguistics. In what has already been applied to society, the primary importance of linguistics is openly avowed. This doesn’t have anything to do with intrinsic value but rather to the fact that when you deal with language, you are dealing with the basis of all inter-relational life.


I want to ask you a question that came to mind while listening to you and that basically, I think, is about your role at the university. Do you think that instruction in linguistics — I mean that which was available before, shall we say, the events — was consistent with what you’ve just told us about the role of linguistics in the humanities?


Well, the university is very slow to adapt. We are required, we were required, I don’t know if this will continue, to follow certain archaic formalities — tests, certain courses of study, etc. Many linguists want to transform the way linguistics is taught at the university. As you know, I’m at the Collège de France where, when it comes to this, we have complete freedom in that we’re not forced to comply with any course of study. Quite to the contrary we’re not allowed to repeat any course, and in addition there aren’t any tests or titles to worry about; we’re only responsible for our research.


I’m very struck to see how many young people are interested in the new humanities, and from many different perspectives, too. We also see a new understanding in philosophy, like in the social sciences. So now language isn’t viewed as it once was, as a specialization just like the others, a parallel one, but not that important. It gives some hope that more ideational projects are now returning to reality, but...


We must see ...


I don’t know how things will turn out, but what is important is that the humanities are now capable of being organizing, of gathering different veins of thought of many different people to find something in common. This is very important.

We live in an age full of revelations. This is maybe what characterizes all modern culture, that it is becoming more and more self-conscious. When we look at how people thought, imagined, and created in previous centuries and even at the beginning of this century, we realize that something has changed, and the results, the most spontaneous creations today (I don’t know if it’s good or bad, you’re in a much better position to tell) have a self-consciousness much greater than in the past.


I think you’re right.


Even the artist tries to understand what she’s doing, and not just be an instrument of inspiration.


I think that what you note is a good characteristic of modern art.


It’s very new ... and I don’t think that it alters the properties of invention. To know what you’re refusing and why — this might stimulate the thought of what there is to invent in the first place and help you discover settings in which you can invent.




Because I think that essentially it’s here that we encounter the problem that language has taught us to see. In the same way that we don’t talk randomly, that is without context, we don’t produce language outside of certain settings, of certain schemas that we have. At the same time I think that art doesn’t come about outside of context and schemas that while different [from those of structuralism] also exist, and that renew themselves or are reborn when we become conscious that they are outdated. This awakening is an opening into the next century. Actually, I’m quite struck by how the twentieth century undoes itself and undoes itself quite quickly.


Yes, it’s as though it were already over.


That’s very clear. It’s as though we crossed one of these phases of transformation in several weeks, even if, as does happen, there are temporary recursive periods. Indeed, it’s not easy to pass from one century to another, nor is it easy to pass from one form of culture to the next, but I think that our times encourage such reflections due to how so many accepted values are thrown into question, and this obtains even for systems of production.


That seems like a good place to stop.

Pierre Daix

Pierre Daix

Pierre Daix (b.1922) gained his reputation as a writer and journalist through his experiences in Occupied France. He co-founded Les Lettres françaises in 1948 with the poet Louis Aragon, and served as its editor-in-chief until 1972. He was a prominent member of the French Communist Party (PCF) until 1974 and remains a leading public intellectual. Art critic and friend of Picasso, he was awarded the Georges Pompidou Prize in 2003 for his contributions to the art world.

Émile Benveniste

Émile Benveniste

Émile Benveniste (1902–76) is among the most important French linguists of the twentieth century. His theory of enunciation — the “énoncé” and “énonciation” — argues persuasively that language is a social process. Also a pre-eminent historical linguist of Indo-European, he was elected to the Collège de France (the most prestigious intellectual post in France) in 1937 where he stayed until his retirement in 1969. You can read his work in Indo-European Language and Society (Faber and Faber, 1963) and in Problems in General Linguistics (University of Miami Press, 1971).

Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck lives in Brooklyn, New York. His poetry has appeared or will soon appear in Upstairs at Duroc, First Intensity, Web Conjunctions, Aufgabe, They Are Flying Planes, The Brooklyn Review, and Other Rooms. His translations from the Urdu can be read online at eXchanges and are forthcoming in The Annual of Urdu Studies. His French prose can be found on the webzine L’être, and his Hindi poetry, on the webzine Anubhuti.

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