works                     text  




[ Naming ]

3. Thing and Name

Francis Ponge minutely examines everyday objects, as he aims to reduce the external prejudices brought through his human consciousness to the object. In contrast, he approaches the thing with a deeper set of interpretations to consider it’s unnamed and unnamable aspects. Ponge describes a thing through a visceral encounter, in which his words enrich a more complex relationship with the object (in this instance an orange, the name of which I have blanked out so that the reader can focus on Ponge’s description rather than the term ‘orange’):

Just as in a sponge, there is        in the yearning to recover its content after having been subjected to the ordeal of squeezing. But whereas the sponge always succeeds, the       never does, for its cells have burst, its tissues have been torn. Whilst the rind alone, thanks to its elasticity, slowly regains its shape, an amber liquid has spilled, accompanied it's true by delicate refreshment and odour, but often too by the bitter awareness of a premature ejaculation of seeds… [1] 

Through his writing, Ponge questions his own preconceived ideas about the objects he encounters in order to ask, what is an orange? Instead of using the term ‘orange’ to include everything about an orange, he observes and narrates to the reader his experience of the orange. In place of choosing to describe a thing, humans often choose to refer to it by its name as an expedient shorthand. This simplifies the complex assemblage and discards the interconnected fragments that make up things, for example; texture, colour, taste and shape. Humans only see what they are looking for, but they only look for what they can see.

The human use of an object commonly begins with ‘naming’ and ‘defining’ the object. Then we recall the definition of the object through its name and then repeat this idea in relation to its assumed use. The production of ‘Names’, such as in a dictionary, is like a manifesto of representing the subject-object relation. This assumes that a triangular relationship between human, object and language (human-object-language) is forged and appears to be inseparable. As Anders Kreuger highlights, 

    The object is always already both image and word. This is ultimately because humans are defined by our use of language. There are no human communities today without language and no primitive versions of language reflecting previous stages of development.[2]

Therefore, a human relationship with objects does not exist outside of language, so we interpret material things through words, names and their associated meanings. According to Ferdinand de Saussure’s, Course in General Linguistics (1916), a sign is composed out of the signifier and signified. For Saussure, even the root concept is malleable, as ‘The connection between signifier and signified is arbitrary.’[3] The signifier is the sound associated with, or an image of, something (e.g. a tree’s branches blowing in the wind or the silhouette of a tree). The signified is the concept of the thing (e.g. wood product, branches for nesting, shade to sit in), and the sign is the object that combines the signifier and the signified into a meaningful unit. I postulate that signs are predisposed with a set of functions that are assumed to convey and be used as a shorthand in a wider system. Objects are subjected to the same approach. Saussure explained that the linguistic sign unites not a thing or a name but a sound-image and a concept, so he divided the sign into two components: signifier and signified. Saussure states that, ‘a linguistic system is a series of phonetic differences matched with a series of conceptual differences.’[4]

For Saussure, the combination of signifier and the signified is a positive unit that can be digested by the human subject. The signifier can be described as a physical existence; a material form, which translates things into objects that can be seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted. On the other hand, the signified can be explained as a connotation or a mental concept. As in linguistics, the signifier and signified are two-sides of an entity that exists psychologically. The implication being that the signifier and signified are two sides of the same human consciousness. Thus, the two components together represent the complete object. One cannot be all, but all can be one.       In response to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory and his static binary in semiotics, signifier and signified, Julia Kristeva emphasizes that language is a dynamic structure. Kristeva states that, ‘To describe the signifying operation of poetic language is to describe the mechanism of conjunction within a potential infinity.’[5] Kristeva claims that each text is unique but also open and un-finished and this reveals that there is a finite (individual text) in relation to an infinity (past, present and future texts) and this is how human language develops. Therefore, language is an organic process that is kept alive through a constant dialogue and this is what produces language’s dynamism, value and meaning.

- Yun-Ling Chen, Not Really Really 17-SS-07, Citrus and Nail, 2017 -

Kristeva states that, ‘The drives that extract the body from its homogeneous shell and turn it into a space linked to the outside, they are the forces which mark out the chora[6] in process.’[7] Kristeva identifies a reciprocal relationship between language and humans, which is more fluid than Saussure’s structured and rigid semiotics. In the latter, the structure of language remains consistent and in the former, the structure of language is open to change. Kristeva locates an interplay between internal (psychological) and external (social text) forces that structure language. This means that humans are not limited to a language that structures us but that we can steer and deploy language differently. Humans require language to communicate and language needs humans to exist or to be kept alive. Kristeva suggest that texts insert themselves into other texts, their valuation is based on the dialogical mode and what is kept relevant and alive; ‘Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.’[8] Within Kristeva’s system, a single entity is never autonomous, as each unit is multi-determined and correlates or is integrated with another unit.

 I identify with elements of Kristeva’s Post-structuralist position, which claims that language could not independently exist by itself without human dialogue. In Kristeva’s account, humans act like a bridge that links language to the outside social text.However, Kristeva’s focus is on a language system centered around human perception and this could be interpreted to mean that objects (imbued with textual meaning by humans) are relevant and alive but things (self-presenting without immediate recourse to language) are irrelevant and dead. Kristeva’s language as dialogue fluctuates between the internal (human psychology) and external (human society) without recourse to nonhuman entities.

 Therefore, Saussure’s structuralist theory actually allows more possibilities for ‘things’ because the gap between signified and signifier suggests that there is a space for a thing to self-present without language (signifying without a stabilized signified). A space of potentiality that isn’t immediately related back into the interplay of human language but could affect the perceptions that inform language systems. Therefore, withdrawing the usual interplay of language between human and thing has the potential to alter the normative perceptive field of humans. Producing the following question: without relating my experience to an outside of societal norms, what will I see in things?

However, there is still room to doubt the stability of a sign within Saussure’s theory, as an interval exists between signifier and signified. This is an interval that suggests that there can be errors or manipulation within communication, in the sense that the signifier may not be able to carry over its meaning (signified). For example, when a very young preverbal child is playing with their toys and then begins to cry, it may not be clear to their parents what has caused them to be upset. The parent receives the signifier without understanding what the signified is (the actual reason for the crying, or concept) and so they do not immediately understand how to react.

Saussure’s theory highlights that human often neglect the distance between signifier and signified. Parent and child do not share the same idea of either signifier or signified, which leads to a gap between the thing and name. In effect, the thing and name have been pulled away from each other. In Saussure’s theory, the signifier operates like a thing and the signified corresponds to the name. I think of the sign as an object; with the signifier acting as the thing, which allows the viewer to experience it, and the signified as the name, which provides the viewer with the tools to recall and use it. The signifier and signified are related to each other in Saussure’s theory but he also shows that neither one can be equated to the whole object, as the sign relies on these two differentials. Although, Saussure allows for this distance between signifier and signified they are both still related to the human subject, as Saussure has produced an object through two human orientated sides (signifier and signified). Saussure presents us with a distance between two poles of the sign, but they still rely on each other through their human receiver (the third position). This entails that the most ordinary things are not granted an identity without possessing a name. For example, an art critic who writes an article comprised of subject-specific words that are intended to describe the artwork perfectly, a process in which the writer has both the signifier and signified (name and thing) in mind while describing, assumes that the reader will be able to understand the work from reading their words. If the reader does not visit the show, they will only receive the description through the critic’s or observer’s words (signified/name and definition). This is an erroneous approach, as the reader is not experiencing the work and cannot feel, sense and intuit it. If they did encounter the artwork in person, then they would most likely realize that their original mental image, which is produced from the text, is very different to their experience. For example, while looking at an artwork in a gallery, there is either a gap or an addition after looking at the artwork’s label (title). When looking at both the artwork and its title, there can be either:
a) a lack of connection in putting both together,
b) the title will seem to overpower the artwork or
c) the title becomes another material within the artwork. Either the title is an addition (as in ‘c’) or a subtraction (as in ‘a’ or ‘b’), for me they are often two individuals (title and artwork) and they are unnaturally forced to tied together tightly.

[1] Francis Ponge, The Voice of Things, ed. Beth Archer (McGraw-Hill Book Company: New York, 1942), 36.

[2] Anders Kreuger, “What things mean,” in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Object, ed. Antony Hudek (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2013), 158.

[3] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (London: Duckworth, 1983.), 120.

[4] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Roy Harris (London: Bloomsbury, 2019.), 141.

[5] Julia Kristeva, “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams”, in The Tel Quel Reader ed. Ffrench and Lack, (New York: Routledge, 1998), 29, <> (accessed 11. June. 2020)
[6] Chora - A term that Kristeva adopts from Plato's theory of ‘a mobile receptacle of mixing, of contradiction and movement, vital to nature’s functioning before the teleological intervention of God and corresponding to the mother. Kristeva situating the chora without any body in particular. Thus, the subject in process is represented by the semiotic chora, which is the place of perpetual renewal in the signifying process.’ <> (accessed from 11. June. 2020)

[7] Julia Kristeva, “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams”, in The Tel Quel Reader ed. Ffrench and Lack, (New York: Routledge, 1998), 29, <>(accessed from 11. June. 2020)

[8] Julia Kristeva, The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 37.


© 2012-2023  Chen, Yun-Ling. All rights reserved