Reference Restored

  • Michael Grant


This reading is taken from Not Saussure (1988, 1995), the first of Tallis’s books to address the errors and confusions of post-Saussurean literary theory. His aim here is to defend a notion of reference in order to defend realism — not only the so-called ‘classic realism’ of the nineteenth-century novel and mainstream Hollywood feature films, but also subsequent ‘experimental’ realism — against the attacks launched on it by theorists such as Colin MacCabe, Stephen Heath, Catherine Belsey and Terry Eagleton in England, and Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva in France. One ground for this attack from the theoretically inclined generation of the 1970s and 1980s derived from the notion that there is no outside to language: everything is text and there is no outside to the text. Lacan went so far as to assert that it is the world of words that creates the world of things. These kinds of idea have their basis in the belief that Saussure had shown that language does not mirror a reality that preexists it and that meaning arises as a consequence of the internal relations holding within the language system. To the theorists, this inevitably meant that the attempt to let reality into the novel was misconceived. Realism can only be a way of passing off what seems real, the verisimilitudinous, as what is real: realism is therefore no more than a fake, the mere creation of an ‘effet du réel’. Furthermore, if one links realism with the tastes of the dominant class, the bourgeoisie, it follows that the fate of the nineteenth-century novel, and indeed any form of narrative pattern that resembles it, such as Hollywood narratives were thought to do, is sealed. Tallis wants to say that while one may indeed agree that language does not correspond to the world, in the sense of mirroring it or providing a window onto it, it does not follow that reference and realism are thereby impossible. A plausible account of language must recognise that, while discourse does not mirror the world, precise reference and accurate description are nevertheless a central part of the way we ordinarily use words.


Natural Kind Material Object Family Resemblance Linguistic Sign Verbal Meaning 
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Copyright information

© Raymond Tallis 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Grant
    • 1
  1. 1.Rutherford CollegeThe University of KentCanterburyUK

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