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  • The Money of Language:Hypotheses on the Role of Negation in Saussure
  • Paolo Virno (bio)
    Translated by Timothy Campbell


With Regard to a Singular Lacuna and the Possibility of Bridging It

Ferdinand de Saussure repeatedly says that in language there are only "negative facts," but he doesn't devote any significant amount of reflection to linguistic negation. He misses the opportunity to recall that the value of a sign is solely defined by its "noncoincidence with the rest" [Course 118], which is to say that x is something precisely because it is not y, nor is it z, nor w, etc. And yet he says nothing about the sign "not." This omission can be explained in different ways: some of the reasons given are rather crude, others more pointed, but all are equally unhelpful for a theoretical investigation. An example of a crude explanation: Saussure neglects the sign "not" because he has no interest in the logical form of judgment and more generally in the structure of the proposition. An example of a pointed explanation: Saussure has to forsake a precise analysis of the negation because in his eyes negation constitutes the presupposition of linguistic analysis, an a priori category, an accounting that cannot be given directly; it is the axiom that makes possible all demonstrations with the understanding that they remain indemonstrable. In addition to being debatable, these hypotheses are, I will reiterate, pointless. The only thing that truly counts is to ask ourselves if Saussure's texts might at least offer the necessary elements that allow us to accomplish what his texts fail to do: clarify the specific status of the sign "not." My response is that yes, they do. That is to say, it seems possible to deduce from Saussure's description of language as a "complex of eternally negative differences" [Writings 153] the prerogatives of that fundamental logical operator which is negation.

To make clear the stakes that are involved, I want to add that this deduction, if it turns out to be legitimate and convincing, would allow us to tackle with greater insight at least two canonical questions that are part of the philosophical tradition. The first concerns the nexus between language and non-being. From Plato's Sophist to Martin Heidegger's What is Metaphysics?, the crucial question goes more or less like this: is non-being, which already has its own reality, manifested thereafter in our discourses as a consequence of the word "non"? Or, conversely, is non-being inoculated in the experience of the human animal only because it is said by the "non"? This is followed by a second question that concerns the hierarchical relation between affirmation and negation. From Aristotle to J. L. Austin we can draw a line between those who believe that affirmative as well as negative propositions share the same logical level, and those who instead see a basic asymmetry between the two forms of linguistic expression. The latter argue that negation [End Page 149] always refers to a preceding affirmation (regardless of whether the affirmation is real or only hypothetical) which, therefore, gives rise to a discourse on discourse. Briefly then: is the negation an integral part of the language-object or does it have genuine metalinguistic value? Does it provide information about the world or does it turn solely on the relation between propositions and the world? At issue here are drastic conceptual alternatives, theoretical options that are fated continually to exclude one other. Yet I am convinced that if these alternatives are read in conjunction with Saussure's considerations on the negative-differential plotting of language, such alternatives are radically transformed. The concept of the negative that can be inferred from these considerations shuffles the deck, forcing us to reformulate the two canonical questions mentioned above. In the pages that follow, I will show how and why this occurs.


Saussure's "Intimate Thought"

Let's summarize briefly Saussure's idée fixe, one that everyone knows and that many set aside (or mitigate) immediately after celebrating it. Language is nothing other than a virtually unlimited complex of opposing relations between terms that, it is important to note, do not have any reality...